The U.S. Missile Defense Agency successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile target during a test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., May 30, 2017.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile target during a test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., May 30, 2017. Photo by Senior Airman Robert Volio

Don’t Hold Missile-Defense Hostage to the Illusion of a Perfect Grade

How is North Korea improving its ICBMs so quickly? It’s not afraid of a test failure — or six.

With every North Korean missile test, the question arises: do U.S. missile defenses actually work? Critics of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD — the part that protects all 50 U.S. states — note that the program’s test launches have hit their targets just 40 percent of the time. That, they say, deserves a failing grade. But this is an inaccurate reading of the program’s ability, and withholding investment based on this assessment hampers the progress of this vital program.

Why? A look at North Korea’s ICBM program is instructive. Granted, it’s not exactly a model test and acquisition program in every way; at least one test missile landed in a North Korean town. Its overall tempo, however, and the regime’s willingness to fail, learn from the failures, and adapt, are the keys to its swift and stunning success. 

The GMD test program hasn’t progressed nearly as quickly. For one thing, it is a more challenging feat to intercept a missile than to launch one; for another, MDA has been under intense pressure to show a successful intercept in every test. But let’s look closer. Five out of eight tests of operationally configured Ground Based Interceptors, or GBIs, have resulted in successful intercepts. Of the three misses, two — FTG-06 and FTG-06A, — were the first tests with the new CEII kill vehicle. The errors in those tests were successfully addressed, as shown by a third CEII test, FTG-06b, that resulted in a successful intercept. Therefore, the 44 GBIs in the ground today, including those with the successful CEI kill vehicle and the ones that have this new kill vehicle adaptation, have successfully intercepted in five of six tests. This record, plus the plan to shoot at any incoming missile with more than a couple GBIs, gets the likelihood of success much higher than the oft-cited 40 percent.

Moreover, each intercept test has employed increasingly complex targets. In May’s FTG-15 test, the most recent, a GBI successfully intercepted a target meant to mimic an ICBM in speed, range, decoys, and countermeasures. That test earned the system an upgraded status by the Office of Director, Test and Evaluation, which concluded “GMD has demonstrated capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from a small number of intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats with simple countermeasures when the Homeland Defense BMDS employs its full sensors/ command and control architecture.”

Yet critics remain skeptical. For example, some question whether GMD can perform at night. In space, “night” is almost meaningless. MDA doesn’t test GMD “at night” because it already knows how objects and sensors perform in space, whether in direct sunlight or not. Its sensors have proved their ability to “see” the target and chaff against the cold and dark background of space.

Still, the GMD system requires continued investment as adversary missiles, decoys, and countermeasures become more numerous and complex. Required as well is a new approach to testing and development. 

Gen. John Hyten, who leads U.S. Strategic Command, often notes that that large weapons programs like GMD take far more time to develop than major weapons programs used to. Last September at Hudson Institute, Gen. Hyten said that during World War II, “We had an industry who was tied at the hip with the military that said, ‘We can do this. We can go fast.’ We had a test process that took risk, that understood what risk was and understood that sometimes you have to fail in order to go fast. In 1954, Adm. Hyman Rickover said we learn nothing from success, we only learn from failure.”

The United States should rededicate itself to building a robust missile defense system that constantly adapts to the growing and changing threats — and this requires a testing program that isn’t afraid to fail. It should, among other things, increase the tempo of tests, deploy additional sensors, accelerate the pace of initiatives that engineers believe would increase reliability, add capacity, and continually improve the fleet of deployed interceptor missiles.

The Trump administration is moving in this direction, with plans to add 20 GBIs and accelerate reliability improvements. But these moves remain a bit tepid in light of current threats. And GMD is merely one component and our various other systems need attention, and in some cases, as in the area of boost phase defense, a new system altogether.

Qualitatively improving the overall missile defense system requires a major reboot in terms of national priority and energy. But if the Trump administration makes this a priority, MDA leaders should work harder to explain to lawmakers why missed test intercepts are sometimes helpful, and threats to withhold funding for a missed intercept are generally not. Success depends on a swift progression of testing, sometimes missing, and applying our knowledge about this field of tremendous technical challenges. The stakes are too high and events are moving too quickly to hold the progress of the system hostage to the illusion of a perfect grade.