By Richard H.P. Sia
June 22, 2013
Shortly after 11 a.m. local time, a U.S. ballistic missile target loaded with a mock nuclear warhead blasted off from Narrow Cape, a low-lying coastal area of Alaska’s Kodiak Island. A network of radars from Alaska to California tracked the target, watching for the release of metal chaff, Mylar or aluminum balloons, or other objects like those that North Korean missiles might use to fool U.S. defenses.
This simulated attack on the United States on Dec. 5, 2008 was the first time massive sea- and ground-based defenses would try to penetrate the decoys or countermeasures that might be used to hide a warhead in the near-vacuum of space. As the Pentagon had wanted, a rocket interceptor launched from a silo at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base destroyed the warhead and the radar network performed well, prompting officials to declare the test a success in a press release the same day.
But the real test of U.S. defenses against the countermeasures that North Korean missiles might eventually carry — the primary objective of that exercise, which was estimated to cost taxpayers between $200 million and $300 million — never happened. The target malfunctioned and failed to release them.
For years, the public’s focus on the nation’s nearly $10 billion-a-year missile defense program has been on whether American interceptors can hit incoming ballistic missiles and protect the country and its allies, a feat often likened to hitting a speeding bullet with a bullet. More than $90 billion has been spent since 2002 to develop the means to target incoming threats and intercept them, but without much demonstrated success.
Less attention has been paid to the targets used in U.S. missile defense testing, which have failed or malfunctioned at an alarming rate since the 2002 inception of the Missile Defense Agency, which oversees all the development, procurement and testing programs. In the last five years, target problems occurred in two of the last three intercept tests of ground-based interceptors — such as those already deployed to Alaska and California — and in two of the last seven tests of the Army’s mobile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptors.
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