U.S. Missile Defense Isn’t Ready for Prime Time

A ground base missile inceptor lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base during a 2008 system test

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A ground base missile inceptor lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base during a 2008 system test

The U.S. shouldn’t field additional long-range missile interceptors until the current system is redesigned. By Tom Z. Collina

In the next few months, the Pentagon plans to conduct a test of its troubled long-range missile defense system. If this test is successful, the Defense Department says it will expand the system on the West Coast by 50 percent to counter missiles from North Korea. Yet last week, for the first time, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester suggested that in light of recent setbacks, a key part of the system should be redesigned to make it “robust against failure.”

This is yet another reminder that the U.S. missile defense system—already deployed in Alaska and California at taxpayer expense of $40 billion—is still not ready for prime time. Regardless of what happens in the next test, this system should not be expanded until it is fixed.

Redesigning the system would likely delay the Pentagon’s plan to field more missiles by 2017. It’s bad enough that the United States already has 30 interceptors deployed that are unreliable; we should not rush to add more at the cost of $1 billion.

Surely, at this time of tight budgets, there are better uses for U.S. defense dollars.

The additional 14 Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missiles to be fielded in Alaska would be armed with a newer version of the system’s “kill vehicle,” known as the Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II). The kill vehicle is lifted into space by a booster rocket and uses its onboard sensors to locate an incoming enemy warhead and destroy it on impact.

But the CE-II has never had a successful intercept test, failing twice in 2010. Nonetheless, CE-IIs are already deployed on 10 of the 30 GBI missiles. So much for “fly before you buy.”

The Pentagon’s most recent test failed last July, but it did not involve the CE-II. It used an older model, the CE-I, which sits atop the other 20 GBI missiles and had not been flight-tested since 2008. Because it had hit the target in previous tests, this failure came as a surprise. The July test cost about $200 million and now must be repeated.

(Related: To Save the Submarines, Eliminate ICBMs and Bombers)

Against this backdrop, J. Michael Gilmore, DoD’s director of Operational Test and Evaluation, wrote in a January report that these test failures “raise questions regarding the robustness of the [kill vehicle’s] design” and that the Pentagon should consider redesigning the part “to assure its design is robust against failure.”

Gilmore is not alone. A 2012 National Academy of Sciences study was sharply critical of the current 30-interceptor system, which it described as “fragile” and ineffective against “any but the most primitive attacks.” That report recommended that the technology be completely redesigned, and that the best use for current interceptors might be as test targets for a new system.

Many in Congress have lost confidence in the system as well, voting in December to drop a controversial proposal to build a new missile defense interceptor site on the East Coast. Instead, Congress approved additional funds to fix problems with the existing technology and required the Pentagon to prepare a plan to “develop, test, and deploy” an upgraded kill vehicle to be fielded in 2018 or later.

If the Pentagon ever succeeds in developing a kill vehicle that works reliably in scripted, unrealistic tests, the system would still need to prove that it can tell the difference between real targets and decoys in an actual attack. 

This ability is critical because an attacker’s warheads would likely come surrounded by debris and decoys. In congressional testimony last May, Gilmore said, “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.”

Fortunately, long-range missile threats from North Korea and Iran are not progressing as swiftly as many had feared. Diplomatic efforts to stop the spread of long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction should be intensified, such as recent initiatives to limit Iran’s nuclear program and eliminate Syria’s chemical stocks.

But regardless of the threat, throwing good money after bad at missile defenses that do not defend is no solution. The United States should not field additional long-range missile interceptors until the current system is redesigned and—most importantly—tested rigorously against realistic targets.

Tom Z. Collina is the Research Director for the Arms Control Association.

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