Misconceptions of Missile Defense: “BMD Doesn’t Work”


In this series of articles, the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance will address and dispel the most common misconceptions regarding missile defense. In this edition, we will explore the misconception that missile defense doesn’t work.

Misconception # 1: Missile Defense Doesn’t Work

The bulk of criticisms directed at the reliability of missile defense have been aimed at the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD), which protects the U.S. against long range ballistic missile attacks. There has been very little disparagement about the effectiveness of other regional systems such as Aegis and THAAD that have a proven and widely acknowledged reliability.

One does not need to look far to come across a news article about failed missile defense tests, or criticisms directed at the GMD. Even some members of Congress have expressed their doubts about the reliability of homeland missile defense saying, “this boondoggle lavishes millions of taxpayer dollars on a project that the Department of Defense and outside experts have said is not needed and will not work.”

If missile defense doesn’t work, why do the United States and many other countries around the world, continue to invest in these capabilities? This article seeks to answer that question and address the issues that have undermined the national missile defense system including failed policies, rushed deployment, and a lack of essential capabilities.

A Failure of Policy: Technological Advancement on a Political Timetable

Regarding missile defense, perhaps the most important consideration to keep in mind is that missile defense is rocket science. The science behind trying to hit a bullet with a bullet requires significant investment in engineering and research and development to achieve the desired result. Unfortunately, U.S. homeland missile defense deployment began with the Bush Administration rushing to field a ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) to thwart a potential threat from rogue nations such as North Korea. NSPD-23 made it the Bush Administration’s policy to “develop and deploy, at the earliest possible date, ballistic missile defenses drawing on the best technologies available.”

This past February Frank Kendall, the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics identified “bad engineering” and “a rush to get something out” as the underlying causes for the failure of the current exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV). In March, Vice Admiral Syring, Director of the Missile Defense Agency also addressed the issue in a press conference by explaining that “in order to rapidly field [a BMDS in 2002] the system engineering cycle was cut short.” Furthermore, an April 2014 GAO report also came to the conclusion that “because MDA moved forward with CE-I and CE-II interceptor production before completing its flight testing program, test failures have exacerbated disruptions to the program.”

While the early problems with the GBM systems early development may be discouraging, it does not suggest by any means that fielding a reliable system is impossible or undesirable. To fix the problem with the interceptor, the Pentagon has asked for around $550 million for a new EKV to sit atop the Ground Based Interceptors (GBI).

President Obama’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review acknowledged that the protection of the United States from the threat of a ballistic missile attack is a critical national security priority. However, the Obama Administration has failed to take action on its own written policy. The FY15 White House missile defense budget proposal is the lowest total ever requested by President Obama during his 5 years as the President of the United States.

No program, especially one as technically demanding as missile defense, can succeed with such shortsighted policies.

Overcoming Countermeasures

Missile defense critics often argue that countermeasures deployed during a ballistic missile attack would render the GMD useless. Specifically mylar balloons or decoy warheads could be used to confuse BMDS radars and sensors by making it difficult to locate and target the actual incoming warhead. Many point to a 2012 report that states that decoys and other countermeasures remain a critical obstacle to any effective midcourse missile defense system. However, Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently addressed the issue of countermeasures at the Atlantic Council Missile Defense Conference. According to Winnefeld, 

Test is critical to the success of any complex weapons system, and when it comes to missile defense countermeasures, our adversaries don’t do much of it, which means they can’t know how they perform. We’ve had our own extensive countermeasures program, and we learned just how difficult it is to get that right. Countermeasures take up payload space and have weight considerations, so there’s also a tradeoff. Bottom line . . . it’s not as easy as it might look on paper.

The same National Research Council report often cited by critics who maintain countermeasures are an obstacle to GMD also offers a solution to the problem. According to the report, the committee believes that “the best approach for addressing the midcourse discrimination problem is the synergy between X-band radar observations and optical sensors onboard the interceptors with the proper shoot-look-shoot firing doctrine.”

A shoot-look-shoot (or shoot-assess-shoot) capability is one in which after firing a first interceptor, time can be taken to assess the lethality of the shot before an additional interceptor is fired. This capability would be more efficient and cost-effective than a salvo shot of several interceptors to kill one incoming warhead.

This capability can be achieved by investing in new radar technology such as the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) and the Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR). The LRDR is a land-based system designed to provide a persistent midcourse discrimination capability. This will improve the GMD by allowing the system to track an incoming missile through all stages of flight. The AMDR suite of capabilities will be deployed on ships and help detect threats in the presence of heavy land, sea, and rain clutter. Improved persistent radar capabilities that can continuously detect an incoming missile are essential capabilities that will improve the effectiveness of our national missile defense system.

Missile Defense Works 

While GMD has experienced setbacks, other missile defense systems boasting similar hit-to-kill technology have proven to be successful in combat situations. In a 2004 Report discussing the effectiveness of the Patriot system during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Col. Charles Anderson announced that the Patriot system intercepted 9 out of 9 enemy tactical ballistic missiles. Iron Dome has also proven to be highly effective in the battlefield. This past July, Israel said that Iron Dome has successfully shot down 90% of Palestinian rockets.

Strong test records also make it difficult to doubt the effectiveness of missile defense. According to the Missile Defense Agency, 65 of 81 hit-to-kill intercept attempts (80%) have been successful across all programs since the integrated system began development in 2001. This includes Aegis, GMD, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and Patriot. Aegis with 28 out of 34 intercepts and THAAD with 11 out of 11 intercepts have been particularly successful.

Getting GMD Right

One of the most important things that the United States can do to realize its objective of fielding a credible missile defense capability is to stay committed to the re-design of the EKV. The Department of Defense FY15 budget request calls for the redesign of the GMD’s EKV for improved reliability, availability, performance, and productivity. In a recent article, former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council J. Michael Barrett, summarized the situation saying “the GMD is the only operational system we have against long-range ballistic-missile attack. The kill vehicle is fixable, but like all anti-ballistic missile efforts, it needs military, diplomatic and technological commitment from government and industry to make it happen.”

While the ballistic missile threat is very real and growing, our leaders must exercise patience. The American taxpayers deserve to see their investment in missile defense well spent on a system that has been through a thorough engineering cycle and sufficiently tested. It’s time for a missile defense system that adheres to a technical timetable rather than a political one.

Abel Romero is the Director of Government Relations at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and one of two William Van Cleave Missile Defense Scholars. Follow him on twitter by clicking here.

One thought

  1. Pingback: GMD System Succeeds in Intercept, Fails to Satisfy Staunch Critics | Missile Defense Review

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