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Missile Defense

East Coast Missile Defense: A Rush to Failure



This week, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives will debate and vote on its annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which, among other things, would provide up to $250 million to build a missile defense site on the U.S. East Coast by 2018. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, and would ultimately lead to a rushed, ineffective system wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.


Volume 4, Issue 4, June 10, 2013

This week, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives will debate and vote on its annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which, among other things, would provide up to $250 million to build a missile defense site on the U.S. East Coast by 2018. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, and would ultimately lead to a rushed, ineffective system wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.

If the full House approves an East Coast site, which is likely, the Senate Armed Services Committee, which marks up its bill this week, should not. Like last year, the Senate's cooler heads should oppose a new missile defense site that the Pentagon does not want.

The Pentagon: We Don't Need Another Site

The Pentagon says that there is no military requirement for an East Coast site. At a May 9 Senate Armed Services Strategic Subcommittee hearing, Madelyn Creedon, Assistant Defense Secretary for Global Strategic Affairs, said that the East Coast is already "well protected" by the 30 missile defense interceptors now based in Alaska and California, and the administration's plan to field another 14 interceptors in Alaska by 2017 "provides additional protection" against "anything from North Korea as well as anything from Iran, should that threat develop." Iran does not yet have a long-range missile capable of reaching the United States.

The Pentagon: We Can't Use Additional Funds

Even though the Defense Department does not support an East Coast site, last year Congress directed the Pentagon to explore options for where such a site might be located. In May 8 testimony before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Missile Defense Agency director Vice Adm. James Syring said he does not need additional funding in fiscal year 2014 because his agency already has funds to assess possible locations, which will be narrowed down to three by the end of the year. After that, an environmental review would last up to two years, he said. Rather than deciding now that the system should be deployed, Congress should wait for the Pentagon to finish its review.

The System Would Not be Effective Against Real-World Threats

To field an East Coast site by 2018, a rush by any measure, the Pentagon would have to use the same technology now deployed on the West Coast, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. But the existing technology needs to be scrapped, not replicated. The GMD system has not been "successfully" tested since 2008, with two failures in 2010.

According to a 2012 National Research Council report, the GMD system "has serious shortcomings, and provides at best a limited, initial defense against a relatively primitive threat." The NRC report recommends replacing the GMD system with an entirely new technology, which could take a decade or more to develop.

Moreover, the GMD system has not been proven effective at distinguishing real threat warheads from decoys or debris. As Pentagon Director of Operational Testing Michael Gilmore testified May 9, "If we can't discriminate what the real threatening objects are, it doesn't matter how many ground-based interceptors we have; we won't be able to hit what needs to be hit."

A Third GMD Site Would Be Expensive

The United States has already spent about $40 billion on the (ineffective) GMD system on the West Coast. The Congressional Budget Office has conservatively estimated that a new site would cost $3.6 billion over five years. The NRC report says that the total 20-year cost for a new system at two sites would be $19-25 billion.

Given current fiscal realities, requiring the Pentagon to buy a weapon system it does not need would force it to cut other, higher priority goals, such as solving the discrimination problem. Building a costly third GMD site using outdated, ineffective technology to counter a long-range missile threat that does not exist is not in the best interests of U.S. national security.

Missile Defense Cooperation Is a Bipartisan Goal

In addition, the House NDAA would prevent any executive agreement dealing with missile defense, presumably including agreements to share missile defense information with Russia. This is self-defeating, because the United States stands to benefit from missile defense cooperation.

For example, U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation could include the sharing of missile launch early-warning information. The Pentagon has been interested in gaining access to data from Russian radars located northwest of Iran, such as the Voronezh radar in Armavir, that could provide useful tracking information to NATO on an Iranian missile launch toward Europe.

Given that early-warning data sharing would improve the United States' and NATO's ability to detect missile launches, it is puzzling that some in Congress oppose providing early warning, detection, and tracking information to Russia. Moscow is highly unlikely to provide this information to the U.S. and NATO unless there is a two-way flow of data.

Despite the concerns of some in Congress that the Obama administration might provide classified information about missile interceptor systems to Moscow, U.S. officials have been clear that they have no such plans. On May 9, Vice Adm. Syring said in response to a question,"I have not declassified any information to give to Russia and I have not been asked to declassify any information to give to Russia." At the same hearing, Creedon said "we have no ability to share any classified information with Russia nor any intent to share any classified information with Russia."

Moreover, U.S.-Russian efforts to cooperate on missile defense have enjoyed bipartisan support, with roots in the Reagan administration's offer to share missile defense technology with the Soviet Union. In 2004, the George W. Bush administration began seeking a Defense Technical Cooperation Agreement (DTCA) with Russia. This agreement would have addressed a broad range of cooperative research and development activities, including missile defense.

Further Bilateral Reductions Are In the U.S. National Interest

The House NDAA also proposes to block implementation of the 2010 New START Treaty between the United States and Russia, as well as further reductions beyond New START. Once again, this is self-defeating as nuclear arms reductions, with a long bipartisan tradition, serve to increase U.S. national security.

It was President Ronald Reagan who, in 1986, shifted U.S. policy away from ever-higher nuclear stockpiles--which peaked at about 30,000 nuclear warheads--and started down the path of reductions that continues today. U.S. and Russian arsenals have now been reduced by more than two-thirds, and the world is safer for it.

If the House NDAA provisions to block funding to implement New START were to become law, Russia would likely halt its nuclear reductions as well, risking the treaty's collapse. This would allow Moscow to rebuild its nuclear forces above the treaty ceiling of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and increase the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States.

Moreover, the inspection system established under the treaty could collapse, depriving the U.S. of crucial data exchanges and on-site inspections of Russian forces, undermining transparency and strategic stability.

At the same time, the House NDAA would prohibit further nuclear arsenal reductions unless approved by the Senate as part of a treaty. While a treaty may be the ideal way, depending on circumstances, to implement further arms reductions, there are other ways.

For example, in 1991 President George H.W. Bush announced unilateral reductions in U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and did not seek congressional approval. Similarly, President George W. Bush reduced the U.S. nuclear stockpile by more than 50 percent, saying in 2001, "We don't need arms control negotiations to reduce our weaponry in a significant way."

B61 Is Already Overfunded

The House bill would provide $581 million for the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP), $44 million above the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)'s fiscal 2014 request, which is already a 45 percent increase over fiscal 2013.

Instead of increasing funding for the B61, Congress should scale it back. NNSA is planning to extend the service life of 400 B61 gravity bombs for an estimated cost of $10 billion, or $25 million per bomb. But NNSA's gold-plated plan would replace hundreds of parts in each bomb that do not need to be replaced now. NNSA has a cheaper option for the B61 LEP that would cost just $1.5 to 2 billion, or 80 percent less, and replace only the parts that need replacement due to aging. There is no reason to spend the extra $8 billion, especially as some NATO allies are calling for the bombs deployed in Europe to be removed and given that the 180 B61s stored in Europe are not militarily useful or necessary today.

Time to Stop Playing Games

It is time to stop playing political games with U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Continued, verified reductions of excessive U.S. and Russian arsenals will enhance U.S. security by reducing the nuclear threat.

As the Pentagon said in January, "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory, as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy."

Gen. James E. Cartwright, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of U.S. nuclear forces in the George W. Bush administration, said last year that U.S. deterrence requirements could be achieved with a total arsenal of 900 strategic nuclear warheads.

The major threats the United States faces today, such as proliferation, terrorism or cyber attacks, cannot be addressed with nuclear weapons. Rather than demanding American taxpayers cough up yet more money for programs that we don't need, Congress needs to focus on more cost-effective solutions that address the nation's future defense requirements.--Tom Z. Collina


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.

Russia, U.S. Trade Missile Defense Offers

Russian and U.S. officials are trading proposals on missile defense cooperation, possibly leading to another round of nuclear stockpile reductions. Russia says it is open to U.S. offers, but no agreement has been reached.

Tom Z. Collina

The United States and Russia are exchanging proposals on missile defense cooperation, possibly leading to another round of reductions in nuclear stockpiles, senior officials from both countries said, following a Russian official’s May 15 statement that Moscow would respond “in a constructive spirit” to a U.S. proposal made in April.

The U.S. proposal, which has not been made public, was contained in a letter from President Barack Obama that national security adviser Tom Donilon delivered to Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 15. The Russian official, Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov, said in April that the letter “covers military-political problems, among them missile defense and nuclear arsenals.”

Nikolai Patrushev, chief of Russia’s Security Council, delivered Putin’s reply during a meeting with Obama and Donilon on May 22, according to a statement by the Russian embassy in Washington. Patrushev also met separately with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel May 21 to discuss missile defense and other issues, according to the Pentagon. Hagel traveled to Moscow for a May 23 conference sponsored by the Russia Ministry of Defense, where missile defense was a prominent issue of discussion.

This latest round of missile defense diplomacy follows Hagel’s March announcement that the United States would cancel the planned Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB missile interceptor program in Europe, which Russia claimed could undermine its strategic nuclear deterrent. (See ACT, April 2013.) Russia has said that it will not consider Obama’s proposals for additional nuclear arms reductions unless its concerns about U.S. missile interceptor plans are addressed.

The Moscow Times and other Russian media reported May 16 that Obama’s letter proposes “to develop a legally binding agreement on transparency, which would include the exchange of information and confirmation that our programs do not present a threat to each other’s defense forces.” This would presumably include a U.S. commitment to Moscow that its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in western Russia would not be threatened by U.S. interceptors to be based in Poland and Romania and on nearby ships. Russia’s main objection to U.S. missile defense plans for Europe has been that they would threaten Moscow’s ICBMs.

In a May 15 e-mail, a Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the Russian media reports.

U.S. officials have made statements that are broadly similar but provide less detail. Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global affairs, testified May 9 before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee that the administration was seeking to revive earlier proposals “that could ultimately lead to discussions with respect to both transparency and cooperation with the Russians on missile defense.” The Obama administration has been proposing greater transparency on missile defense activities since 2011, and U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation has been a bipartisan goal since the Reagan administration. (See ACT, April 2011.)

In response to U.S. proposals for greater cooperation on missile defense, Russia has been seeking a legally binding agreement, such as a treaty, to limit the number, location, and speed of U.S. interceptors based in Europe. The Obama administration has rejected this proposal because, among other reasons, the Senate would be unlikely to approve a treaty limiting U.S. missile defenses. Obama’s proposal on transparency would be an executive agreement and not subject to Senate approval, according to the Moscow Times report.

Obama’s cancellation of the planned SM-3 II-B interceptor deployment should reduce Russia’s need for a treaty-based commitment, as Moscow was primarily concerned about the capabilities of that interceptor, according to former administration officials. A Russian diplomatic source was quoted by Kommersant May 15 as saying that Russia “could well accept the U.S. proposal” because “more transparency in the missile defense field is useful both in itself and as an instrument to improve mutual confidence.”

Obama also reportedly suggested that the two countries could conclude a framework agreement on further reductions to their nuclear arsenals. In his State of the Union address in February, Obama reiterated his support for a follow-on agreement to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Obama has been calling for another round of reductions for strategic and tactical nuclear weapons deployed and in storage.

Kommersant reported May 24 that Putin, in his letter to Obama, was still seeking a legal guarantee that U.S. missile interceptors would not threaten Russian ICBMs.

Talks are set to continue, as Putin and Obama are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries in Northern Ireland on June 17-18 and in St. Petersburg, Russia, around the September 5-6 Group of 20 summit.

In response to the shelving of the SM-3 IIB program, 19 Republican House members wrote to Hagel to ask him to request $250 million for 20 interceptors for an East Coast site to defend against possible Iranian long-range missiles. At the May 9 hearing, Creedon testified that she does not see a gap in missile defense coverage of the East Coast. “The East Coast is well protected” by the 30 interceptors now based in Alaska and California, she said.

Missile Defense Talks Resume

In the wake of national security adviser Tom Donilon’s visit to Moscow, the United States and Russia plan to resume talks on missile defense cooperation after a two-year break.

Tom Z. Collina

In response to the Obama administration’s March decision to cancel plans for long-range missile interceptors in Europe, Russian officials have agreed to join the United States in senior-level talks on missile defense in late April, the Defense Department has confirmed.

The meeting would be the first significant effort to restart missile defense cooperation talks since they broke down almost two years ago, possibly opening a door to U.S.-Russian negotiations on additional nuclear arsenal reductions beyond the levels established by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov and U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller will lead the bilateral discussions in Brussels on April 30, Antonov told reporters in Moscow on April 16 and a Pentagon spokesman confirmed in an April 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today. The meeting was announced after U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon’s visit to Moscow on April 15.

Antonov said that, in Brussels, the U.S. officials “are expected to elaborate on the changes in the U.S. plans in the area of missile defense, namely their giving up the fourth phase of deploying the missile defense system in Europe.”

Despite tense relations over missile defense, human rights, and other issues, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama are scheduled to meet twice this year, on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries in Northern Ireland in June and in St. Petersburg, Russia, in September for what is being billed as a “bilateral summit.”

Missile defense talks broke down in 2011 over Russian concerns that the fourth phase of the U.S. European Phased Adaptive Approach, which included plans for deploying Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB long-range interceptors in Poland by 2022, would threaten Moscow’s strategic nuclear missiles. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced March 15 that the United States would “restructure” the SM-3 IIB program and shift resources toward fielding 14 additional ground-based interceptors by 2017 at Fort Greely in Alaska to address recent provocations from North Korea. That would bring the total number of long-range interceptors in Alaska and California to 44. (See ACT, April 2013.)

Speaking at a conference in Warsaw on April 18, Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, clarified Hagel’s remarks by saying that the SM-3 IIB “will no longer be developed or procured.” The Obama administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2014, submitted to Congress on April 10, has no funding for the SM-3 IIB program (see).

Even so, Russia continues to say that the U.S. shift on missile defense does not go far enough. After meeting in Brussels on April 23 with NATO foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Moscow is studying U.S. proposals on missile defense cooperation and is “ready for dialogue but cooperation could be only equitable, with clear-cut guarantees.” Russia has been demanding “firm legal guarantees” that the U.S. interceptors to be fielded in Europe would not be used to shoot down Russian strategic missiles. The United States has repeatedly declined to give such guarantees.

Donilon and Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, discussed missile defense and the prospects for additional arms reductions with Putin and senior Russian officials April 15.

Donilon gave Putin a letter from Obama, according to both governments. Putin aide Yuri Ushakov told the Interfax news agency April 15 that the letter “covers military-political problems, among them missile defense and nuclear arsenals.” He added that the Putin-Donilon conversation “had a rather positive nature, same as the messages sent by the Obama administration.”

In another sign that Russia may be adjusting its stance on missile defense, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said April 16 in a speech at the Russian Embassy in London that U.S. missile defense plans do not pose a threat to Moscow’s strategic nuclear weapons, RIA Novosti reported. “We have solved the issue of penetrating the U.S. missile shield and it poses no military threat to the country,” said Rogozin, who has been critical of U.S. missile defense plans in the past.

The Prague Nuclear Agenda, Part Two

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen speaks at ACA's event at the National Press Club on April 11, 2013 By Tom Z. Collina Four years after the historic speech in Prague laying out his nuclear policy priorities, President Barack Obama must now decide which issues to focus on in his second—and last—term. The administration accomplished many important arms control and nonproliferation milestones since April 2009, such as the New START treaty, the Nuclear Posture Review, the Nuclear Security Summits, and the 2010 NPT review conference consensus, but much is left to be done, as this ACA fact sheet underscores. To...

Pentagon Shifts Gears on Missile Defense

Removing a major roadblock to Russian support for another round of nuclear arms reductions, the Department of Defense last month effectively canceled the fourth phase of its plans to deploy missile interceptors in Europe over the next decade.

Tom Z. Collina

Removing a major roadblock to Russian support for another round of nuclear arms reductions, the Department of Defense last month effectively canceled the fourth phase of its plans to deploy missile interceptors in Europe over the next decade.

At a March 15 press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that, under a “restructuring” of the European program, the Pentagon would redirect funding to field an additional 14 ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles in Alaska by 2017 to address rising nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

Citing the U.S. need to “stay ahead” of North Korea’s “irresponsible and reckless provocations,” including a satellite launch last December, a nuclear test in February, and the development of “what appears to be a road-mobile ICBM,” or intercontinental ballistic missile, Hagel said the United States would increase the number of missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, from 30 to 44; deploy a second X-band radar in Japan, which had been previously announced; conduct environmental studies for a potential additional interceptor site in the United States, as directed by Congress; and cancel the last of the four phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense system, which would have fielded interceptors in Poland to shoot down any future long-range missiles launched from Iran.

Congressional Republicans, who have been critical of the Obama administration’s missile defense policies, generally praised the announcement. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News on March 17 that he “applaud[s] the efforts,” but added he would support a new missile defense site on the East Coast and said he had concerns about canceling the fourth phase of the planned European deployment. At the same time, he said, “I don’t think that threat is imminent—I don’t think [North Korea has] the delivery mechanisms that are necessary to really harm us.”

A group of 19 House Republicans sent a March 19 letter to Hagel saying the additional interceptors in Alaska are “welcome and long overdue” but that the lawmakers were “concerned about the decision to terminate” the fourth phase. They called on Hagel to include $250 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget for 20 interceptors at a new East Coast site.

Russian Reaction

Moscow had seen the U.S. intention to deploy the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB in Poland as a potential threat to its ICBMs based in western Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama announced in February that he would resume efforts to seek additional reductions in nuclear stockpiles with Russia, but Moscow said that its concerns about U.S. missile defense plans had to be resolved first. (See ACT, March 2013.)

Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said March 20 in prepared remarks in Geneva that the United States now is “exploring what a future [nuclear arms control] agreement with Russia might look like.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov met with U.S. officials in Geneva on March 18 and 19 for talks on issues that included the March 15 missile defense announcement, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russian officials have so far taken a wait-and-see approach to the Pentagon’s new plans. “There is no unequivocal answer yet to the question of what consequences all this can have for our security,” Ryabkov told reporters March 21 in Russia. “The causes for concern have not been removed, but dialogue is needed—it is in our interest and we welcome the fact that the American side also, it appears, wants to continue this dialogue.”

Moscow has been seeking a legally binding commitment that the United States would not use interceptors based in Europe to target Russia’s ICBMs. U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon reportedly will visit Moscow April 15 to discuss missile defense with senior Russian officials, and Hagel is expected to travel to Moscow in late May to continue discussions.

Troubled Development

Administration officials said the decision to cancel the fourth phase of the European deployment was not based on Russian opposition, but on the fact that deployment of the SM-3 IIB interceptor had been delayed from 2020 to at least 2022 due to congressional funding cuts. Hagel said that, by shifting resources “from this lagging program” to the additional GBIs missiles, “we will be able to add protection against missiles from Iran sooner.”

Iran does not yet have long-range missiles that can reach the United States; the U.S. intelligence community has said Tehran could develop this capability by 2015 with significant foreign assistance, although a report last December from the Congressional Research Service said Tehran’s ability to meet that target date “is increasingly uncertain,” in part because Iran is not receiving sufficient help from China and Russia.

The SM-3 IIB, which exists only on paper and, with Hagel’s decision, has been downgraded to a technology development program, has been facing a number of problems. A study released in February by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the SM-3 IIB might not be effective without changes to its operational plan, which in turn could lead to significant safety risks, cost increases, and schedule delays. Last September, a major technical report by a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel recommended canceling the fourth phase of the planned missile interceptor deployment because it was not the most effective way to defend the United States against potential Iranian missile strikes. (See ACT, October 2012.)

At the press conference, Hagel said the Pentagon would continue the other phases of its European plan, which include currently deployed, shorter-range SM-3 interceptors on Aegis-equipped Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea and future land-based deployments in Romania in 2015 and Poland in 2018.

Walter Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense for policy who co-chaired the NAS study, said in a March 18 interview that dropping the fourth phase was “a good step” because newly developed interceptors deployed on the East Coast could counter future Iranian ICBM launches more effectively than the SM-3 IIB could from Europe.

Slocombe questioned the administration’s decision to put additional interceptors in Alaska, saying it was “not a very good thing to do in the long run, since it’s the same old stuff in the same old place.” The NAS panel was sharply critical of the current 30-interceptor system deployed on the West Coast, which it described as “fragile” and ineffective against “any but the most primitive attacks.” The system has not had a successful intercept test since 2008, missing twice in 2010.

Fly Before You Buy

Acknowledging the GBI system’s shortcomings, Hagel said that he would not deploy the additional 14 interceptors, which will cost about $1 billion, “until we are sure that we have the complete confidence that we will need.” Speaking at the same press briefing, James Miller, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said the Pentagon would “stick with our fly-before-you-buy approach.” Noting that the GBI missile’s kill vehicle, called the Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II), has had “a couple of test failures,” Miller said the Pentagon would conduct an intercept test this year. A successful nonintercept test was conducted in January.

The CE-II kill vehicle, which is the object that is supposed to collide with an incoming warhead in space, was fielded in 2008 and is currently deployed on 10 of the 30 GBI missiles in Alaska and California, according to a March 2011 GAO report. The other 20 GBI missiles are armed with CE-I kill vehicles, which were fielded from 2004 to 2007 and still are in place today. But the CE-II was not used in an intercept test until January and December 2010, and it failed both times. As a result, in 2011 the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) suspended additional CE-II deployments and said that fielded GBI missiles armed with CE-IIs would not be considered operational until a successful intercept test. The MDA later found a flaw in the guidance system of the Raytheon-made CE-II.

The Pentagon is going to conduct flight tests of the CE-I this summer and “hopefully flight-test the CE-II after we build it this fall,” Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the March 15 briefing. Miller said that if the modified CE-II is successful, the Pentagon would “make changes to those CE-IIs that are currently in place, and then the new ground-based interceptors would also be [outfitted with] CE-IIs.”

Even if the next intercept tests are successful against simple, intermediate-range targets, they are not expected to test the system’s effectiveness against ICBM threats or countermeasures such as decoys. The GAO has said that the capability of the two kill vehicles against decoys “has not been validated” and that tests against ICBMs will not occur until 2015 or later.

China, which is North Korea’s main ally and has repeatedly criticized the U.S. missile defense program as a threat to strategic stability, did not welcome Hagel’s announcement. “Strengthening anti-missile deployments and military alliances can only deepen antagonism and will be of no help to solving problems,” Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Beijing on March 18.

MDA Interceptor Flies Successfully

A Jan. 26 test of a three-stage ground-based missile interceptor was a success, the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said in a Jan. 26 press release. The test, which did not involve a target missile, was part of the MDA’s effort to recover from two failed Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) intercept tests in 2010

Marcus Taylor

A Jan. 26 test of a three-stage ground-based missile interceptor was a success, the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said in a Jan. 26 press release. The test, which did not involve a target missile, was part of the MDA’s effort to recover from two failed Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) intercept tests in 2010.

Initial indications from the test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California “are that all components performed as designed,” the MDA said.

The January test was designed solely to test the flight performance in space of the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), the portion of the interceptor that would separate from its booster and is intended to collide with an incoming warhead.

The trial was the first flight test following a guidance system failure in the missile during a December 2010 test and is part of a larger test series designed to pinpoint and correct design flaws in the Raytheon-designed EKV. The MDA described the test as “the critical first step” in returning to successful testing of the GMD system. Aviation Week reported that the MDA is planning to conduct a test with a target missile between March and June.

According to the MDA, the system has had seven successful intercepts out of 14 tests, not counting a partial test in 1999 and a “no test” in 2007, giving the system a 50 percent success rate. The existing GMD system was criticized as “fragile” and ineffective in a September 2012 report by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences.

Separately, the MDA announced Feb. 13 that its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system successfully intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile in a flight test over the Pacific Ocean. The system used Space Tracking and Surveillance System satellites to trace the target missile and guide the Standard Missile-3 Block 1A interceptor’s kinetic warhead, the release said. This was the system’s 24th successful intercept in 30 flight attempts since 2002, according to the MDA

GAO Sees Flaws in Missile Defense Plan

The Obama administration’s plan for missile interceptor deployments in Europe may not be effective against long-range missiles launched at the United States from Iran, a congressionally sponsored study has concluded.

Tom Z. Collina

The Obama administration’s plan for missile interceptor deployments in Europe may not be effective against long-range missiles launched at the United States from Iran, a congressionally sponsored study has concluded.

The review, which is based on classified technical reports, found that “modifications are needed” in the way that the system would operate and where it would be based. Those changes could lead to significant safety risks and cost increases, said the study, which was conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

The review looked at the final phase of the Obama administration’s missile defense plan, called the European Phased Adaptive Approach, which was announced in September 2009. A key part of the plan is the deployment of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB interceptors in Poland around 2022. (See ACT, January/February 2013.) The review was requested last September by Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), who at the time was chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, and was presented to the subcommittee Jan. 29. The GAO released the report, which consists of briefing slides and a cover letter on Feb. 11.

The GAO outlined a number of areas in which the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which is part of the Defense Department, may need to revise its plans for the SM-3 IIB. The United States had planned to deploy the missiles in Romania and Poland in order to intercept future long-range missiles launched from Iran, but MDA technical analysts have since found that the Romanian site “was not a good location from a flight path standpoint” for the SM-3 IIB to defend the United States, the GAO said. Based on MDA findings, the site in Poland may “require the development of the ability to launch the interceptor earlier,” namely, during the incoming missile’s boost phase, when its engines are still firing, “to be useful for U.S. homeland defense,” the GAO said.

According to the GAO, the MDA analysis suggested that basing the interceptors on ships in the North Sea would be better than deploying them in Romania or Poland and would not require the early launch of interceptors, as basing them in Poland would. But the MDA found that this option could have “significant safety risks” and would have “unknown, but likely substantial, cost implications,” the GAO said.

“This report really confirms what I have said all along: that this was a hurried proposal by the president,” Turner told the Associated Press on Feb. 9. Turner has said that he wants the United States to revive President George W. Bush’s plan to field larger interceptors in Europe, a plan that President Barack Obama shelved in 2009, as well as build a new missile defense site on the U.S. East Coast.

Given the limitations of the land-based sites in Romania and Poland, the MDA is now requiring that the interceptors also be deployable at sea, the GAO said. Development of the SM-3 IIB is still early in the design phase, and the MDA has not determined whether the interceptor will have liquid propellant in some components. The use of liquid propellant would allow for a faster interceptor, the GAO said.

If liquid propellant is used, however, the Navy, which would deploy the missiles on its Aegis-equipped ships, would be concerned about the risk of fire, the GAO said. Because of such concerns, the Navy banned the use of liquid missile fuels on its ships in 1988. The GAO said that the Navy has not made a final decision on whether it would overturn this ban to allow liquid-fueled interceptors on ships.

According to the GAO, the SM-3 IIB could have a 27-inch diameter, as opposed to the 21-inch diameter for other, slower SM-3 versions that would intercept shorter-range missiles. The wider interceptor would raise costs for the Navy, which would have to outfit its ships with wider launchers, the GAO said. North Sea deployment also would require the Navy to dedicate additional ships to the program, the GAO said.

The Obama administration remains committed to its European deployment plan, a State Department spokesman said by e-mail Feb. 13.

For interceptors that are based in Poland to be effective, the GAO said, they may have to be able to launch shortly after the launch of the attacking missile, while that missile is still in its boost phase, but the actual intercept would not occur until after that phase, when the attacking missile is no longer firing. Intercepting a missile just after boost phase is known as “early intercept.”

Advocates of early intercept have argued that it is a way to avoid the need to differentiate between real warheads and fake ones as they travel through space, which is one of the most significant challenges to intercepting a warhead carried by a long-range missile. If the defense cannot distinguish real warheads from decoys, then it must shoot its limited supply of interceptors at all of them, degrading the system’s effectiveness. In a Feb. 26 e-mail to Arms Control Today, an MDA spokesman said that “by destroying missiles early” in flight, the MDA hopes to avoid “the costs of maintaining a significant number of expensive interceptors to destroy advanced countermeasures in a later phase of a threat missile’s flight.”

Early intercept is a controversial concept, even within the MDA. The GAO found that a 2010 MDA analysis concluded that launch of the interceptor during the boost phase of the attacking missile “was not a desirable capability” as it reduces the effective range of the interceptor. Since then, a 2012 MDA assessment found this capability was “feasible” but would require modifying the SM-3 IIB, missile defense command and control systems, and space-based sensors.

But expert panels of the National Academy of Sciences and the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, have said that early intercept is impractical because interceptors cannot fly fast enough to reach the attacking missile in time. (See ACT, May 2012.)

China Conducts Missile Defense Test

China successfully launched a land-based missile interceptor Jan. 28, according to Xinhua, the country’s official news agency.

Timothy Farnsworth

China successfully launched a land-based missile interceptor Jan. 28, according to Xinhua, the country’s official news agency.

In a statement released after the test, a Chinese Defense Ministry official said it had accomplished “the pre-set goal,” but did not say what the goal was. The test was “defensive in nature and target[ed] no other country,” he said.

It was not clear from the Chinese statement whether the test involved a target for the interceptor to hit. China’s only previous missile interceptor test, on Jan. 11, 2010, did involve a target.

In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test, destroying one of its own satellites instead of a test warhead. (See ACT, March 2007.) That test prompted objections from numerous countries, in part because of the debris it created. The two later tests took place at a lower altitude and created no debris.

In a Feb. 12 interview, Li Bin, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the latter two tests were focused on developing and understanding missile-intercept technology rather than assessing the performance of a deployable missile defense system.

According to Li, the Chinese versions of the statements released after each of those tests were identical. Li said, however, that the official English translation of the Jan. 28 statement omitted the word “technology” from the phrase “land-based mid-course missile interception technology test,” the term that China used in 2010. He said the use of the word “technology” indicates that China was trying to better understand missile defense capabilities and was not testing in order to deploy a national missile defense system.

Li said Beijing has three options: keeping the technology in reserve, deploying a regional missile defense system around major cities, and deploying a national system. Li said the first two options are more likely because it would be too costly to create a national system that could defend against an adversary that has a large number of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Experts disagree on whether the main goal of the Chinese program is to develop a national missile defense system or an ASAT system. In a Feb. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, David Shlapak, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said that there are differences in the development paths for the two systems. The numbers of interceptors and the “engagement dynamics”—the way the interceptors strike the target object—associated with targeting an enemy’s satellites “are much easier to manage than those associated with large-scale missile defense,” he said.

“I don’t think that the testing we’ve seen to date reveals much about China’s intentions. China could be experimenting with technology, seeking to develop a real capability, or sending a message,” he said. “Unless and until we see more activity, it’s going to be hard to make a conclusive determination.”

Previous Tests

In 2007, China destroyed an aging weather satellite with a hit-to-kill interceptor approximately 850 kilometers above the earth. According to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, the tally of space debris created by the test had reached 3,037 pieces as of September 2010, of which 97 percent remained in orbit. Much of the international community, including the United States, condemned the test, which U.S. officials often cite as an example of how space has become more “congested, contested, and competitive.”

According to a January 2010 State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks, the target of the 2010 test was a CSS-X011 medium-range ballistic missile rather than a satellite and took place at an altitude of 250 kilometers, much lower than the 2007 test. But the two tests used the same interceptor vehicle, the SC-19, the cable said. The cable also said that U.S. missile-warning satellites detected the launch of the interceptor and the target missile, as well as the actual interception.

International Reaction

The United States and other countries have expressed concerns about China’s ASAT and missile defense tests. In a Jan. 29 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a State Department official said, in regard to the 2007 ASAT test, “the United States has consistently urged Beijing through diplomatic, military-to-military, and scientific channels not to conduct further anti-satellite weapons testing in space.”

India, another country that has nuclear weapons and a growing space program, recently increased its own missile defense testing and closely watches China’s ASAT and missile defense tests. (See ACT, January/February 2013.)

According to Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, the 2007 Chinese ASAT test sparked a debate within and outside India’s government, “forcing a re-evaluation of India’s policy against militarization of space.” In a Feb. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Rajagopalan, a former assistant director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat, said that since the 2007 test, “there has been fresh pressure brought about for an Indian ASAT system” and “a need for India to have demonstrated ASAT capability.” Although the Indian government has not made a total shift in its policy, “[t]he growing Chinese capabilities (be it ASAT or missile defense capabilities) have clearly upped the ante in the region,” Rajagopalan said.

She questioned the effectiveness of the “space security regime” and the ability “of the major global powers to respond [to] and affect” China’s behavior. “India has continued to argue for [a] legally binding mechanism to deal with the myriad challenges [of the] space domain,” Rajagopalan said.

Iran's Missile Program and Its Implications for U.S. Missile Defense


Although plans for expanding U.S. strategic missile defenses focus on the Iranian ICBM threat, that threat is not emerging as was previously predicted.  Iran conducted no long-range ballistic missile tests in 2012 and has not flown even the larger space launch vehicle that it displayed two years ago, which could have helped advance ICBM technology.  Moreover, Tehran has still not decided to build nuclear weapons and continues to focus on short- and medium-range rather than longer-range ballistic missiles.


By Greg Thielmann
January 2013

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Although plans for expanding U.S. strategic missile defenses focus on the Iranian ICBM threat, that threat is not emerging as was previously predicted.  Iran conducted no long-range ballistic missile tests in 2012 and has not flown even the larger space launch vehicle that it displayed two years ago, which could have helped advance ICBM technology.  Moreover, Tehran has still not decided to build nuclear weapons and continues to focus on short- and medium-range rather than longer-range ballistic missiles.

It is, therefore, time to adapt U.S. missile defense plans accordingly by suspending the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach. Doing so would remove an obstacle to negotiating further reductions in the strategic forces of Russia - the only country that poses an unambiguous existential threat to the United States.

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Back to the Drawing Board: The Need for Sound Science in U.S. Missile Defense

The technical core of the U.S. missile defense program is in tatters. Two heavyweight studies in the past 16 months have raised fundamental questions about the science underlying the program.


Philip E. Coyle

Clarification made online on February 13, 2013.

The technical core of the U.S. missile defense program is in tatters. Two heavyweight studies in the past 16 months have raised fundamental questions about the science underlying the program.

U.S. missile defense policy has long been controversial. The current U.S. approach has drawn criticism from some who say it is excessive and others who say it is insufficient. The findings of the two studies, however, transcend questions of policy and ideology because they show that the scientific basis for the program is weak. After decades of trying and at least $250 billion spent, the program is in many ways back to square one. This state of affairs has major implications for U.S. national security policy, defense spending, and U.S. relations with Russia, NATO, and allies in the Middle East and Asia.

The more recent of the two studies is “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense,” which was written by a committee under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and released last September.[1] Thirty-two months in the making, the NAS committee’s 260-page treatise focuses on the intractability of the problem of creating effective boost-phase missile defense—which involves intercepting a missile shortly after launch while its rocket motors are firing—as well as on the difficulties the United States has been having with missile defense in general. In the course of describing the obstacles to boost-phase missile defenses, the report is critical of some elements of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system currently deployed at Fort Greely in Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and of the European Phased Adaptive Approach being developed for deployment in Europe over the next decade. The purpose of the Alaska- and California-based GMD system ostensibly is to defend the U.S. homeland from intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack from Iran or North Korea, whereas the purpose of the phased adaptive approach ostensibly is to defend Europe from missile attack by Iran, but the Europe-based system also would include capabilities that would help defend the U.S. homeland from Iranian missile attack.

The NAS panel report, together with an equally important study written by a Defense Science Board (DSB) task force and released in September 2011,[2] leads to the conclusion that both the GMD system and the phased adaptive approach currently lack the basic elements for a viable architecture and, as a result, lack a viable concept of operations.

Both studies also discourage further spending on boost-phase missile defense, notwithstanding nearly 30 years of investment.

Boost-Phase Defense

The NAS committee report is all that decision leaders in Congress and in the Department of Defense should need to stop chasing impracticable boost-phase missile defense projects. The report put it succinctly: The department “should not invest any more money or resources in systems for boost-phase missile defense. Boost-phase missile defense is not practical or cost-effective under real-world conditions for the foreseeable future.”[3]

In agreement with the DSB task force report, the NAS panel’s study explains that all boost-phase intercept systems “suffer from severe reach-versus-time-available constraints.”[4] This means that the defense can run out of time before the enemy missiles are too far away to catch. Although both reports point out that boost-phase technology or its cousin, early-intercept, might be helpful in a crisis under certain circumstances, those situations should not cause policymakers to miss the central point that the time available for boost-phase missile defense can be too short for success.

The NAS panel echoes the conclusions of a 2004 study by the American Physical Society (APS)[5] and the findings of many other experts for years. Nevertheless, the U.S. policy process has kept alive the boost-phase concept and early intercept (intercept before the target reaches apogee).

For example, in a glossy August 2011 handout, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said it would achieve early-intercept capability against medium-range ballistic missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and ICBMs “from today’s regional threats by 2020 or sonner.”[6] One month later, however, the DSB task force concluded in its report that early-intercept capability is not itself “a useful objective for missile defense in general or for any particular missile defense system.”[7] The task force told the MDA that it was focusing on the wrong thing—early-intercept capability—and losing sight of the basic parameters that determine success or failure in missile defense.

It is remarkable that a Pentagon agency with an annual budget of $10 billion could go so wrong, promising an achievement within a few years that the task force described as “not realistically achievable under the most optimistic set of deployment, sensor capability, and missile technology assumptions.” The Pentagon’s own scientists had to point out how far the MDA had strayed from the basic physics of its systems; the NAS committee has now made the same point.

Midcourse Defense

The first meeting of the NAS panel was held in January 2010; the 15th and last meeting was in July 2011. Yet, because of a review by the MDA, the report was not released for another 14 months, a period almost as long as the time it took the panel to prepare the report.

Last April 30, while the MDA was carrying out its review of the panel report, the committee co-chairmen, L. David Montague and Walter B. Slocombe, provided a shortened version of the report in a letter to Reps. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.[8]

At a hearing of the subcommittee on March 6, when she already had learned the conclusions of the report, Sanchez asked Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, the director of the MDA, about the reliability and discrimination capabilities of U.S. missile defenses. O’Reilly pointed to the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS) as the solution.

Yet the NAS panel’s study, already under review at the MDA, had described the PTSS as “a solution looking for a problem”[9] and recommended to Congress that it be canceled because it “is too far away from the threat to provide useful discrimination data, does not avoid the need for overhead persistent infrared cueing and is very expensive.”[10] Presumably, O’Reilly knew that the study had concluded that the PTSS should be terminated, but he made no mention of that.

Only seven weeks later, in its April 30 letter summarizing its report, the NAS committee was even more blunt, saying that it “finds no valid justification” for pursuing development of the PTSS and “recommends terminating all effort on it.”[11]

Other technical approaches have been proposed for the task of warning the missile defense system interceptors about incoming enemy missiles. One example is the Airborne Infrared (ABIR) system, which is composed of drones, each with a suite of sensors looking up to spot enemy missiles. The DSB task force said the ABIR concept, “although potentially promising as a component that would fit in well with a variety of missile defense architectures and regional situations, is in early development and not ready for inclusion in near-term plans for [phased adaptive approach] architectures.”[12]

The task force pointed out that the technical challenges for the ABIR system “include achieving highly accurate angular accuracy for the sensor as well as packaging (e.g. form factor) to employ on an operational (unmanned) air platform.”[13] This means that the physical orientation of the sensors onboard an unmanned aerial vehicle must be highly precise while tracking the target in flight despite the motion of the platform carrying those sensors. That may explain why the House and Senate appropriations committees zeroed out the ABIR system in their respective versions of fiscal year 2013 funding bills.

Another important missile defense system is the SPY-1 air and missile defense radar carried on all Navy ships equipped with the Aegis system. Four different versions of the SPY-1 are currently deployed on Navy ships. According to the DSB task force report, however, “The current Aegis shipboard radar is inadequate to support the objective needs” of the European Phased Adaptive Approach mission.[14]

Calling attention to the need for better missile defense radars on land and sea, the DSB added that, “[f]or this reason, the TPY-2 land-based radars and the future Navy ship-based Air and Missile Defense Radar…upgrade become critical components of the European defense scenarios.”[15]

The NAS committee supported the DSB task force’s view on the limitations of the SPY-1 radar in a press conference held on September 11, 2012, when Montague explained that the SPY-1 radar was not sufficiently powerful for missile tracking in the European deployment.[16]

Cancellation of Final Phase

The NAS committee recommended canceling the fourth phase of the phased adaptive approach. This phase, scheduled to be deployed in the 2020 time frame, is to be the last and the most technologically advanced, with enhanced capability to defend against potentially longer-range ballistic missiles from Iran, including ICBMs that could reach the United States. This phase, however, is also the most difficult and may not be achievable by 2020 or even much later.

New Expenses for Missile Defense

The recommendations of reports by a National Academy of Sciences committee and a Defense Science Board task force would add large but unknown costs to U.S. missile defense programs. The approaches that the studies recommend would require the consideration of whether new defense spending is sensible on at least the following:

  • A new East Coast missile defense site, perhaps at Fort Drum, New York, or in Maine. As at Fort Greely, Alaska, this new site would require silos from which interceptors could be launched; the supporting infrastructure of command, control, and communications systems; and physical protection.
  • A possible fourth site near Grand Forks, North Dakota.
  • New, smaller two-stage interceptors for the East Coast site that are faster than the existing three-stage, ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Fort Greely.
  • More of those new interceptors to replace the existing GBI missiles at Fort Greely and Vandenberg, and construction of silos in a new missile field at Fort Greely.
  • Development of a new exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV)—the part of the interceptor system that would seek out and destroy the incoming missiles—carried on the nose of the interceptor, with far better sensors for tracking and hitting the target. Such an EKV would be more capable and likely heavier than the existing EKV on the existing GBI missiles.
  • The development of a new X-band radar system, roughly twice as big as the existing AN/TPY-2 radar and mounted on a turntable. These modifications would allow it to see further and in more than one direction.
  • Deployment of this new radar at five locations, namely, Fylingdales, United Kingdom; Thule, Greenland; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Clear, Alaska.
  • Permanent deployment of the Sea-Based X-Band Radar at Adak, Alaska, with technical improvements so that the radar can withstand the high winds at Adak.
  • Development of new, more powerful radars to replace the SPY-1 radars on Navy Aegis ships.
  • Development of an Airborne Infrared Surveillance system, not to be confused with the Airborne Infrared (ABIR) system. Although such a surveillance system would be flown on drones like the ABIR system, it would need to provide better targeting information than would be available from the ABIR system as currently defined or from satellites or radar alone.
  • Development of a space satellite system that is some combination of the Space-Based Infrared System and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System to replace the aging Defense Support Program satellites.

The currently defined version of the fourth phase “is not necessary for theater defense and is at best less than optimal for homeland defense,” the committee said in its report. If the first three phases are fully implemented, the additional interceptor capability of the fourth phase “is not required for European (or other theater) defense,” the panel added.[17]

Canceling the fourth phase might help Russia and the United States reach an accommodation over U.S. missile defenses in Europe. The cancellation would eliminate the need for a high-speed interceptor, the Standard Missile-3 Block IIB. Under current plans, that interceptor would be deployed in 2021 in Poland, where it could threaten Russia’s ICBM fleet. According to the NAS committee, such an interceptor would be able to intercept Russian ICBMs launched from bases in southwestern Russia at targets in the eastern United States.[18] For this reason, the fourth phase has been the most contentious part of the phased adaptive approach from the point of view of Russian military and political leaders.

The committee’s recommendation to deploy interceptors at a new East Coast site effectively moves the fourth-phase interceptors out of Europe and replaces them with interceptors on U.S. soil. This would broaden the “battle space,” providing earlier opportunities for intercepts and for multiple attempts at intercepts, but requires the development of a new, faster booster with better target discrimination capabilities than the existing GMD interceptors now deployed in Alaska and California. A new East Coast site would cost billions of dollars more when President Barack Obama and Congress are trying to reduce federal spending, and it presumes that a solution can be found to the age-old problem of distinguishing actual targets from debris, decoys, or countermeasures. “Moreover,” the panel notes, “it finesses the issue of large interceptors close to Russian territory.”[19]

Debris and Decoys

With respect to the need to deal with decoys and countermeasures, the NAS committee wrote that “[t]here is no effective ballistic missile area defense that does not require dealing with midcourse discrimination (or shooting at all potential threat objects!).”[20] “Moreover,” the panel wrote in its April 30 letter to Congress, “early intercept, even if achievable from a forward-based interceptor system, cannot obviate the need for midcourse discrimination, because countermeasures and payload deployment can be achieved very rapidly (as historical experience shows) after threat booster burnout.”[21]

The DSB task force made a similar point about the need to discriminate real targets from debris and decoys: “If the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating.”[22]

Because of the inability to discriminate real targets from debris, decoys, or both and because of the poor record of successful intercepts in tests, especially by the GMD system, the reports from the NAS committee and the DSB task force recommend a “shoot-look-shoot” strategy. This means shooting several times at the same object and looking at it between shots to see if it has been destroyed.

Congressional testimony on this matter by Defense Department officials has been reluctant but clear: the system might have to shoot at each object four or five times to have a reasonable chance of killing that object.[23] If the enemy launches 20, 30, or 50 missiles in a salvo, that could consume hundreds of interceptors.

In battle, those repeated tries would take time. The NAS committee report includes a “Typical Mission Timeline” for a hypothetical four-shot, shoot-look-shoot scenario for intercepting a missile fired from the Middle East at the United States.[24] The first shot is an interceptor launched from Poland cued by an X-band radar in Azerbaijan. Russia has not agreed to a radar at that location, but perhaps Russia and the United States can reach an agreement on missile defense making that possible. That first shot occurs 190 seconds into the flight of the enemy missile.

A second shot from Poland takes place at 526 seconds, cued by a radar at the Fylingdales site in the United Kingdom. A third shot takes place at 772 seconds with an interceptor launched from a notional East Coast site in Caribou, Maine, again cued by the radar at Fylingdales. After each of the first three shots, the radar at Fylingdales performs a kill assessment. At 1,411 seconds, a fourth interceptor is launched from Caribou, once again cued from Fylingdales. At 1,692 seconds, a radar at Cape Cod performs the last kill assessment; and 358 seconds later, the enemy missile hits its target, if the enemy missile has not already been intercepted.

East Coast Site

This scenario demonstrates why the NAS panel recommended a new East Coast missile defense site in northern Maine or perhaps at Fort Drum, New York. According to the report, an East Coast site would provide time for more intercept attempts and for those attempts to occur sooner than would be possible from Fort Greely alone. In theory, successive shots from the East Coast site or Fort Greely would improve the odds.

The NAS committee also suggested a fourth site, perhaps near Grand Forks, North Dakota.[25] This fourth site is reminiscent of the old Safeguard missile defense system, which was developed in the late 1960s and briefly deployed near Grand Forks, with nuclear warheads on 100 interceptors. On October 2, 1975, Congress voted to shut down the Safeguard system after it had been fully operational for only one day because of concerns about the reliability of the system and its cost.[26]

Regardless of whether the new East Coast interceptors would be deployed at two, three, or four sites, the NAS committee’s proposal presumes that technology may be developed to permit the discrimination of real targets from debris, decoys, or both, something the NAS committee and the DSB task force say is essential but not currently in the cards.

The House Armed Services Committee quickly adopted the idea of an East Coast site. In its version of the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, the committee called for the site to be operational no later than December 31, 2015. The full House included this provision when it adopted the defense authorization bill, but the Senate did not.

The Defense Department has been clear that there is no requirement for a third site. In a letter to the congressional defense authorizers, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote that the House provision “is premature because the administration has not identified a requirement for a third U.S.-based missile defense site, nor assessed the feasibility or cost in a cost-constrained environment.”[27]

The House-Senate conference report on the defense authorization bill called for a study of at least three possible additional missile defense locations in the United States, with at least two of them on the East Coast. The report eliminated the House requirement for deployment by 2015. It also required that the MDA prepare an environmental impact statement for each site and a contingency plan to deploy such a site.

Added Costs

The budget implications of the NAS committee report are enormous and come at a time when defense spending is already under great pressure. Neither the Defense Department nor the Congressional Budget Office has released estimates of how much these additional elements would cost. They certainly would require annual expenditures of billions of dollars; beyond that, one can only extrapolate from the cost of similar systems that have already cost billions (see box, page 10).

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is pursuing two new regional missile defense systems, one in the Middle East and another in Asia. The costs of these systems also have not yet been determined.

The basic architectures of the phased adaptive approach and the GMD system are in doubt because so many of the parts do not work, do not exist, or are not achievable for the foreseeable future. Clearly, a major review and reconsideration is required of all elements of both arrangements. In particular, without a scientifically credible path to effective target discrimination, these projects lack the necessary foundation for a successful missile defense system.

Making sense of all this, sorting through which options might be promising enough to justify further spending and which should be terminated, will be a major challenge for the MDA because the NAS committee and the DSB task force do not agree on what should be done next. The task force study focuses on Europe and on having fast, dependable interceptors; long-range sensors; low-latency (quick-response) communications; and threat discrimination capability. The task force would deploy missile defense assets relatively close to the country possessing the missiles, at which the assets would be aimed as planned under the phased adaptive approach, and does not recommend a new East Coast site, let alone a fourth site near Grand Forks or a new GMD interceptor. It also does not recommend canceling the fourth phase of the phased adaptive approach.

The NAS committee focuses as well on fast, dependable interceptors; long-range sensors; low-latency communications; and threat discrimination capability, but deploys the recommended new interceptors at sites in the continental United States, not in Europe. It limits the scope of the phased adaptive approach.

Neither study comes to a clear conclusion about what should be done with ballistic missile defense sensors in space, and neither one explains how to achieve effective threat discrimination. (Neither study was chartered to conduct such analyses.) A serious study of target discrimination would be a worthwhile project for the NAS and the DSB.

Considering all this, the NAS committee probably should have chosen a different title, as “making sense of missile defense” requires answers to vital questions that were left unanswered, most notably how to achieve effective threat discrimination. The report provides insights, however, into the challenges for missile defense and explains them more clearly than has any document in the public domain since the 2004 APS study.

Expertise Needed at the MDA

The need to constitute a team of scientists with strong research and development capability at the MDA comes through as a top priority in the NAS committee report. The committee explains that the MDA simply could not provide briefings or papers that showed that the agency understood the issues involved and how to make the best scientific and technical choices.

The report said, “Discriminating between actual warheads and lightweight countermeasures has been a contentious issue for [ground-based] midcourse defense for more than 40 years.”[28] From the information that the MDA provided, “the committee learned very little that would help resolve the discrimination issue in the presence of sophisticated countermeasures. In fact, the committee had to seek out people who had put together the experiments” such as the Midcourse Space Experiment and the High-Altitude Observatory 2 “and who had understood and analyzed the data gathered. Their funding was terminated several years ago, ostensibly for budget reasons, and their expertise was lost.” Furthermore, when the committee asked the MDA to provide real signature data from all flight tests, the MDA “did not appear to know where to find them.”[29] Thus, the MDA no longer seems to have the expertise it needs to sort through the many difficult technical challenges that it faces, nor even a record of whom to ask for help.

Summarizing its frustration, the NAS panel concluded that the MDA “has given up trying and has terminated most of the optical signature analysis of flight data taken over the last 40 years. In the committee’s view, this is a serious mistake.”[30]

Without a strong, in-house scientific team, the MDA will not have adequate expertise to decide which path to follow. Private industry will help, but industry also has lost much of the scientific expertise it once had, and the MDA needs to have its own sustained and independent expertise.

As happened with the 2004 APS study, which was too soon forgotten, time has a way of eroding the public policy implications of a scientific study. To scientists, the basic physics is immutable. The public policy arena, however, has a way of discounting scientific findings over time as if to say that the underlying physics is somehow out of date, as if Sir Isaac Newton, watching that apple fall, was wrong about gravity.

In the public policy arena, the fact that someone believes that something such as boost-phase missile defense is viable under real-world conditions, even though for all practical purposes it is not, can be enough to keep it going. Hope and persistence are powerful forces in politics.

If the MDA pursues scientific dead ends and fails to give priority to target discrimination, the United States will continue to have missile defenses that are expensive pipe dreams, cobbled together from components that do not work together in a “system of systems,” failing to satisfy the intended mission.

Philip E. Coyle served from 2010 to 2011 as associate director for national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. From 1994 to 2001, he served as director of operational test and evaluation in the Department of Defense. He worked for 33 years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on a variety of high-technology programs. He currently is a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.


1. Committee on an Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives, National Research Council, “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense,” National Academy of Sciences, 2012, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13189 (hereinafter NAS committee report). The version of the report released at a September 11 press conference was in prepublication form. The citations in this article are to the final version.

2. Defense Science Board (DSB), “Task Force Report on Science and Technology Issues of Early Intercept Ballistic Missile Defense Feasibility,” September 2011, http://handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA552472 (hereinafter DSB task force report).

3. NAS committee report, p. 15.

4. Ibid.

5. David K. Barton et al., “Report of the American Physical Society Study Group on Boost-Phase Systems for National Missile Defense: Scientific and Technical Issues,” Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 76, No. 3 (October 4, 2004), http://rmp.aps.org/pdf/RMP/v76/i3/pS1_1.

6. Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Department of Defense, “Missile Defense Agency Program Update,” 11-MDA-6310, August 2011, p. 11, http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/The_Missile_Defense_Program.pdf. Medium-range missiles are generally considered to have a range of between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometers. Intermediate-range missiles have a range of about 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers. Intercontinental-range missiles have a range of more than 5,500 kilometers.

7. DSB task force report, p. 33.

8. Letter to Representatives Michael R. Turner and Loretta Sanchez, House Armed Services Committee, from L. David Montague and Walter B. Slocombe, Committee on an Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives, April 30, 2012 (hereinafter NAS committee letter).

9. NAS committee report, p. 119.

10. NAS committee letter. “Overhead persistent cueing” refers to the need for a platform or set of platforms that operate around the clock and provide high-quality information on the launch and trajectory of the enemy target to the interceptor.

11. Ibid.

12. DSB task force report, p. 26.

13. Ibid., pp. 26-27.

14. Ibid., p. 26.

15. Ibid.

16. “The National Research Council Holds a Teleconference on Missile Defense Report,” CQ Transcriptions, September 11, 2012 (copy on file with author). Montague explained:

What the DSB said was the SPY-1 radar is not capable enough to do—support missile intercepts in—in European deployment, which we agree with. SPY-1 is not used for that purpose in the European deployment, a subject that apparently has escaped some people’s read here. The SPY-1 radar is used only for two things. One is to communicate with the interceptor, because the X-band radar is used for, what we call and what the MDA calls, engage on remote. That means all the data tracking data and information that is used to launch an interceptor is—comes from the X-band radar. All the SPY-1 in—in Aegis Ashore does is communicate back and forth with the interceptor.

17. NAS committee letter.

18. NAS committee report, p. 159.

19. Ibid., p. 127.

20. NAS committee letter.

21. Ibid.

22. DSB task force report, p. 27.

23. See Edward Aldridge Jr., Statement before the House Armed Services Committee, March 20, 2003, http://www.archive.org/stream/hearingsonnation2004unit/hearingsonnation2004unit_djvu.txt; Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, Statement before the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, April 30, 2008, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-110hhrg48813/html/CHRG-110hhrg48813.htm.

24. NAS committee report, pp. 164-165 (table 5-3).

25. “The committee’s evolved GMD interceptor’s proposed design would use a smaller two-stage interceptor with a total burn time less than a third that of the existing [ground-based interceptor] carrying a larger[,] more capable [kill vehicle]. It would also require adding a third missile field site in the U.S. Northeast and a fourth site in the U.S. North Central states together with additional X-band radars to protect the eastern United States and Canada against Iranian threats.” Ibid., pp. 252-253.

26. For a history of U.S. missile defense systems, including the Safeguard system, see Richard Dean Burns, The Missile Defense Systems of George W. Bush: A Critical Assessment (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), pp. 20-30.

27. Letter to Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, House Armed Services Committee, from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, December 11, 2012, http://media.bloomberg.com/bb/avfile/rWfyBvrA3G1U.

28. NAS committee report, p. 131.

29. Ibid. The 1996 Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) was a highly successful demonstration of infrared and visible sensor technology in space to identify and track ballistic missiles during the midcourse of their flight trajectory. The High Altitude Observatory 2 (HALO-2) is a modified Gulfstream jet equipped with a variety of ultraviolet, infrared, and visible sensors to observe missile defense flight-intercept tests and collect information about the phenomenology of ballistic missiles in flight. The technology from the MSX and HALO-2 is of interest for improved target discrimination.

30. Ibid.




Clarification: The January/February 2013 article “Back to the Drawing Board: The Need for Sound Science in U.S. Missile Defense” implied that the report on missile defense by a National Academy of Sciences committee warned against the deployment of Standard Missile-3 Block IIB interceptors in Poland because of the capability of those missiles to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from southwestern Russia. In the passage that the article cited, the committee report was referring to the potential deployment of the proposed Ground-Based Midcourse Defense-Evolved interceptor.


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