This Sunday the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) along with U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing, the Joint Functional Component Command, Integrated Missile Defense, U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Navy conducted its first successful test of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system since 2008. The test is a major milestone in proving that the GMD is a viable option for the protection of the U.S. homeland from a limited ballistic missiles attack. Yet despite the success of the test, stubborn critics of the system refuse to acknowledge the advances made and the nature of the threat. The national missile defense system is a complicated engineering feat that demands regular testing. While intercept failures may be discouraging, it is important to note that the data collected presents an opportunity to correct the issues that caused those failures. While some would call the threat of a ballistic missile attack by North Korea “exaggerated”, there is currently no reliable way to measure just how advanced that threat is. Failing to plan for the worst could prove disastrous.
Difficult Road to Success
As discussed in a previous MDR article, many of the technical difficulties the GMD system has faced have occurred as a result of a rushed deployment. In order to respond to the rapidly emerging ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea, the Bush administration made the decision to deploy the system on a political timetable rather than a technical one. The result was a system that did not adhere to proper engineering or testing cycles.
Two tests of the CE-II kill vehicle (FTG-06 and FTG-06a) failed to intercept their targets. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, this was due to “excessive vibration in the inertial measurement unit–a component of the kill vehicle’s guidance system. As a result, MDA halted deliveries of the remaining CE-IIs until the failure was resolved.” Further eroding confidence in the GMD system was the surprise unsuccessful intercept attempt of FTG-07, which was the first generation CE-I kill vehicle. Upon examination, it was determined that FTG-07 did not intercept its target due to a failure to separate on the final stage of the GBI rather than the actual CE-I kill vehicle itself. Given this string of unsuccessful tests, it is easy to see why some would have reservations about the reliability of the system.
Failure to Impress
The national missile defense system that we have today has been subject to harsh evaluations since its inception. From 1999 to 2008, the CE-I kill vehicle successfully intercepted its target in eight out of thirteen tests. Although that record made the CE-I just over 60% reliable, the most common criticism against the system was that tests were not conducted under realistic conditions. A June 2000 New York Times Article suggested that the DoD officials “substituted simpler and fewer decoys that would be easier for the antimissile weapon to recognize” to compensate for the interceptors inability to distinguish between enemy warheads and decoys. In 2003 one report pointed out that the Pentagon, citing limitations and safety considerations, conducted missile defense tests at a “lower altitude and slower speeds than what a real intercept is likely to demand.”
In regard to the CE-II interceptor, despite the success of Sunday’s test some critics suggest that one intercept out of three, or a success rate of only 33%, is hardly a cause to celebrate. While those statistics do indeed sound grim, this perspective fails to acknowledge the advancements made in reversing the difficulties current leadership has inherited from predecessors due to poor decision-making. Rather than dismiss national missile defense system as a failure, this weekend’s test should highlight the critical need for regular testing. Given the ambitious engineering goal of attempting to hit a bullet with a bullet, it should not come as a surprise that this system would run into technological challenges. Even a test that fails to yield an intercept provides useful data to diagnose and correct issues with the interceptor that lead to the failed intercept. As evidence, MDA has worked to solve the engineering issues with the CE-II after two failed intercept attempts. This experience should make it obvious that we must test these interceptors more often to continue to work out any technical issues in the system.
The second major criticism of the current generation EKV is that the Obama Administration risks falling into the same “trap” as President Bush in attempting to stay ahead of an “exaggerated threat” from North Korea. The reclusive country persists in aggressive rhetoric and continues to develop its long-range missiles including the land based Taepodong-2 and road mobile Hwaseong-13 (KN-08). While North Korea has yet to successfully test either missile, should they become operational, both could potentially reach the continental United States. Of particular concern is the KN-08. Road mobile missiles are harder for radars to track and can be set up and launched more quickly than missiles launched from silos. Although details regarding the missile are disputed, including specifications and operational status, the development of a road mobile missile is a threat that must be addressed. In a recent speech regarding the Hwaseong-13, Vice Admiral James Winnefeld remarked that he views KN-08 as a real threat stating, “We believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States.”
In addition to the advancement of the North Korean missile program, the regime also continues to make progress on its nuclear program. An article earlier this year from Reuters suggests that North Korea “may be closer than previously thought to putting a nuclear warhead on a missile.” While expert opinion on the status of North Korea’s ability to attack the U.S. homeland varies, there is no dispute that the threat exists. To suggest that the North Korean threat is exaggerated or not a near term concern would require intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the least transparent regime in the world. Therefore, it is impossible to say with any real certainty how advanced the threat of a ballistic missile attack against the United States is.
Defense planning requires preparation for worst-case scenarios, which in this case would be an unexpected missile threat from North Korea. Risking the nation’s protection from an ICBM attack based on the notion that North Korea does not pose a near term threat could prove to be disastrous. It is critical that the missile defense system the United States has fielded is fully realized and that development of the next generation kill vehicle is pursued to stay well ahead of any threat on the horizon.
Some might argue that an attack from North Korea is simply not probable. Continued reliance on Cold War-era deterrence theory has lead to the conclusion that the U.S. nuclear deterrent alone is enough to prevent North Korea from ever attempting to launch a nuclear strike. In his 2009 article Keith Payne, a leading scholar in the field of nuclear deterrence, writes about the shift in deterrence strategy since the end of the Cold War:
The continuity and centrality of the Soviet threat has been replaced by a kaleidoscope of opponents, threats and potential threats. U.S. deterrence goals and priorities correspondingly have become more varied both in the target audiences and the scope of actions to be deterred. A factor contributing to the contemporary uncertainty about the functioning of deterrence is the need to know so much about so many diverse opponents, e.g., the goals, values and decision-making processes of “rogue” states and terrorist organizations. In such a dynamic geopolitical environment no possible formula can define the set of U.S. forces to be “locked in” as adequate for deterrence.
Given an unpredictable and secretive adversary such as North Korea, relying on a “one-size fits all” strategy to deterrence may not be the best approach. A strategy to prevent an attack on the U.S. homeland must include contingencies in the event that deterrence fails, which includes a robust national missile defense system.
Correcting the Course
Sunday’s successful test is an indicator that the GMD is on a path to validating the investment made in the system after disappointing failures. Today there is a sound plan in place to correct mistakes from the past and make the GMD a viable system capable of protecting of the nation.
Under the leadership of Vice Admiral Syring, MDA has made significant progress in increasing the reliability of the national missile defense system. Sunday’s test demonstrated the agency’s ability to discover and correct past engineering mistakes. Additionally, the FY15 MDA Budget Request calls for a number of forward thinking enhancements to the system. These include $99.5 billion for the re-designed EKV and $79.5 to begin development of the Long Range Discrimination Radar.
While good stewardship of increasingly rare defense dollars is critical, these comparatively modest investments along with currently deployed interceptors will help ensure that the United States is protected from a near term and future threats. Strong leadership, improved capabilities, and adequate funding are all critical components in making the GMD system a reliable tool for reducing the threat posed by ballistic missiles in the hands of unpredictable rogue states.
Watch the Missile Defense Agency’s Flight Test 06b (FTG-06b) Ground-Based Interceptor launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California and successfully intercept its target.
Abel Romero is the Director of Government Relations at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and one of two William Van Cleave Missile Defense Scholars.