US Should Fix Missile Defense, Not Expand It

By on Monday, June 9th, 2014

The next test of the U.S. Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) system will occur “very soon,” Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said May 28. And if that test is a success, he said, the Pentagon plans to add 14 interceptors to the 30 deployed in Alaska and California by 2017, increasing the total by almost 50 percent. This expansion will cost about $1 billion.

But the next test, even if it hits, should not be used as justification to expand the system. As Philip Coyle, former director of operational test and evaluation at the Department of Defense, said in February, “Not another dime should be spent on more bad GBIs at Fort Greely [in Alaska] or anywhere else. Instead, a new GBI/EKV must be designed, built, and successfully tested to replace the old design.”

The Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) is supposed to collide with an enemy warhead in space. But the kill vehicle to be tested this month, called the CE-II, has been tested only twice before, and missed both times. If it hits in June, the test record would be one-for-three. Batting .333 may be great in baseball, but in missile defense it is simply inadequate.

That’s not all. Last summer the other fielded kill vehicle, the CE-I, also missed its target in a test. This failure came as a surprise, because this interceptor had a better test record. After $40 billion spent and faced with failures of both the CE-I and CE-II, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) decided to make major changes to the kill vehicle. But these changes will not be ready by 2017, so expansion will go ahead without them.

Given the widely accepted need–on both sides of the aisle–to redesign the system, plans to expand it before it is reworked make little sense. It would be like buying a car just after it has been recalled, before the problem is fully corrected.

Why the rush? It is easy to say that “we must stay ahead of the threat,” and yes, the United States needs to be ready in case North Korea or Iran actually tests and deploys a long-range ballistic missile that could reach North America. But neither nation has done this, and if they do there are already 30 GBI interceptors fielded on the West Coast.

Fortunately, these missile programs are not progressing as swiftly as many had feared, and deterrence still plays a role. As Adm. Winnefeld said May 28, neither North Korea nor Iran “yet has a mature [long-range ballistic missile] capability, and both nations know they would face an overwhelming U.S. response to any attack.”

The Pentagon should prioritize upgrading the kill vehicle, a process that will take a few years, and not expand the system beyond the current 30 GBIs until the new interceptor is proven to work.

As a result, the Obama administration should not follow through with plans to deploy 14 additional interceptors in Alaska by 2017, nor should it heed Republican calls to build a new East Coast site.

“Bad Engineering”
There have been serious concerns about the GBI kill vehicle ever since the system was rushed into service by the Bush administration in 2004. Of primary concern is that the system’s test record is getting worse with time, not better. Overall, out of 16 intercept attempts from 1999 to 2013, the system hit 8 times, or 50%. For the first 8 tests, the system had 5 hits, or 62%. But in the last 8 tests, the system has hit only 3 times, or 37%. This is not progress.

In January, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s current director of operational test and evaluation, wrote that recent test failures raise concerns about the system’s reliability and suggested that the missile’s kill vehicle be redesigned to assure it is “robust against failure.”

“We recognize the problems we have had with all the currently fielded interceptors,” Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for procurement, said in February. “The root cause was a desire to field these things very quickly and really cheaply.”

“As we go back and understand the failures we’re having and why we’re having them, we’re seeing a lot of bad engineering, frankly, and it is because there was a rush” to deploy the system, Kendall said. “Just patching the things we’ve got is probably not going to be adequate. So we’re going to have to go beyond that.”

In March, the MDA announced that it would make significant changes to the EKV, and plans to spend $740 million over the next five years to do so. If it works, the new kill vehicle could be fielded around 2020. According to the fiscal 2015 Pentagon budget request, the new kill vehicle “will improve reliability, be more producible and cost-effective, and will eventually replace the [kill vehicles] on the current GBI fleet.”

Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the MDA, said in March about the decision to rush deployment in 2004: “Everybody knew that [the EKVs] were prototype in nature, and that decision was made to field the prototypes because some defense now is better than defense much later.”

But we now know how premature, unreliable and expensive “some defense” turned out to be. Ten years later, the North Korean long-range missile threat is still not imminent. The last three intercept tests of the GBI system have failed–two tests in 2010 and one last year. And efforts to correct these problems will cost MDA more than $1.3 billion, according to an April 30 Government Accountability Office report.

Next Test Will Not Justify Expansion
The next GBI test will not be of a redesigned EKV; that will not occur until 2018 or later. The June test will involve ‘patching’ the CE-II.

Since 10 CE-IIs are already deployed in Alaska, the problems with this EKV need to be addressed. If the next test is successful, the deployed CE-IIs should be modified. But this EKV, according to officials, is inherently flawed and based on a “prototype” design. Why would we want to field additional kill vehicles of a flawed design? We should not.

Therefore, if successful, the next test could help ‘patch’ the CE-IIs that are already in the field, but the numbers should not be increased until an upgraded EKV is ready. 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.

If the Pentagon succeeds in developing a new kill vehicle that works reliably in ‘cooperative’ tests, which are scripted and unrealistic, the system would still need to prove that it could work in an actual attack, in which the enemy would seek to evade the defense.

In this case, the ability to differentiate real targets from fake ones is critical because an attacker’s warheads would likely come surrounded by debris and decoys. In congressional testimony last year, the Pentagon’s 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.”

Throwing good money after bad at missile defenses that may not defend is no solution. “Patching” inherently unreliable interceptors is not the same thing as redesigning them so they will work. The United States should not field additional long-range missile interceptors on either coast until the current system is redesigned and–most importantly–tested rigorously against realistic targets.

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.

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