Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wants to spend $1 billion on 14 more ground-based missile defense interceptors that have never been tested under real-world conditions.
Last week, the House decided to throw good money after bad. Tucked inside its $512 billion defense authorization bill was a provision that allocates funding for a new ground-based missile defense site on the East Coast -- despite the fact that missile defense brass don't want the money, at least for that purpose. They say there are other, more cost-effective ways to strengthen homeland security.
In a June 10 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the Missile Defense Agency director, Vice Adm. James Syring, and the head of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command, Lt. Gen. Richard Formica, wrote that it would be more economical to invest in missile defense discrimination and sensor capabilities than build a new site.
Regardless, the House bill provides $140 million in seed money for an East Coast missile defense base, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would cost at least $3.6 billion to build and operate over the next five years. The bill also includes an amendment requiring the Missile Defense Agency to have the new site up and running by fiscal year 2018. Currently there are two West Coast sites, one at Fort Greely in Alaska and the other at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which together host 30 ground-based interceptors.
House lawmakers say an East Coast site is needed to defend against a hypothetical long-range missile attack by Iran. A report published last year by the National Academy of Sciences recommended three locations: Fort Drum and the former Griffiss Air Force Base site in New York and a site in Caribou, Maine, which is near the decommissioned Loring Air Force Base.
In early May, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) urged the Defense Department to put Griffiss and Fort Drum at the top of its list. To his credit, however, Schumer said his request hinged on whether "military experts determine that a new system on the East Coast is necessary, workable and cost-effective...."
That's a tall -- if not insurmountable -- order.
The Syring-Formica letter quoted above addressed Schumer's first and third caveats: It's not necessary, and there are other measures they think are more important to fund. But the bigger issue is the fact that after nearly 14 years of tests, the system doesn't work as advertised.
White House Insists the System Is 'Fully Capable'
There are actually four U.S. missile defense systems. One is the sea-based Aegis system, deployed on Navy ships, which is designed to knock down short- and medium-range missiles.
Another system, the Army's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, fires interceptor missiles from a truck-mounted launcher. THAAD targets short- and medium-range missiles inside and outside the atmosphere. In April, the Pentagon announced plans to deploy one of its three THAAD batteries to Guam to help defend U.S. forces on the island.
A third system, the vehicle-launched Patriot Advanced Capability-3, intercepts incoming short-range missiles in their final phase at lower altitudes than THAAD.
The one we're talking about here is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system currently deployed in Alaska and California. Its mission is to shoot down long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in mid-flight.
In response to recent North Korean saber-rattling, some U.S. officials have stated unequivocally that the GMD system could stop a North Korean missile. During a March 7 press briefing, for example, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "I can tell you that the United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack." A month later, on April 9, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, if the United States indeed had such a capability. Locklear's firm response: "We do."
Will Get Fooled Again
How do these official assertions square with reality?
According to David Wright, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and an expert on missile systems, "[s]uch statements are nonsense since there simply is no test data that shed light on how well the defense would work against a real-world missile attack. Moreover, no one knows what North Korea might equip its missiles with to surprise and fool the defense."
As Wright points out, the ground-based system has never been tested under real-world conditions. All of the tests the Missile Defense Agency has conducted since it began testing in 1999 have been highly scripted. In other words, system operators were told where and when a test "enemy" missile was going to be launched. Even with that information, they failed to knock down dummy enemy targets in eight out of 16 attempts. That's not very reassuring.
As Wright also notes, the system can be fooled. He co-authored a joint UCS-Massachusetts Institute of Technology report, "Countermeasures," which found that decoys and other countermeasures could defeat the U.S. ground-based missile defense system by fooling its sensors and interceptors. Any country that has the capability of building a long-range missile, the 2000 report concluded, also would have the capability of outfitting it with effective countermeasures. U.S. intelligence analysts made the same observation in 1999, and it remains true today.
In a March 22 blog commemorating the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" speech outlining his vision of a missile defense shield, Wright explained how countermeasures can easily foil the system -- and how the Pentagon fudged its tests:
For example, lightweight decoys can be released with the warhead, which is itself disguised to look like a decoy (this is called "anti-simulation"). Not all the decoys need to look exactly the same; in fact the best approach is to have them all look and behave slightly differently so that nothing identifies an object as a decoy versus a warhead. Enough is known publicly about the defense system and its sensors that the attacker can design its countermeasures with the aim of denying those sensors the information the defense would need to identify the warhead.
As discussed in the recent National Academy of Sciences report on missile defense, the Pentagon still doesn't know how to solve this problem. That's why the large difference in technical sophistication between the U.S. and North Korea does not automatically tip the balance in favor of the U.S. in this challenge.
None of the intercept tests conducted so far of the U.S. ground-based or ship-based [Aegis] systems have included realistic countermeasures that you should expect in a real-world attack from North Korea. The tests haven't even included a warhead that is tumbling -- intentionally or not -- which is a very hard target for interceptors to hit. Some tests have included objects referred to as "decoys" but in each case the warhead and "decoys" looked different and the interceptor was told in advance which object to attack. Such scripted tests may be appropriate at this relatively early stage of development of the system, but they do not show the system will be effective against a real-world attack.
Defense Secretary Hagel's Unwarranted Confidence
On March 15, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced a new series of steps he claimed would strengthen U.S. defenses against potential North Korean and Iranian long-range missiles. Those initiatives include conducting environmental impact studies for a new GMD site -- presumably on the East Coast -- and spending $1 billion for 14 additional ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, which currently has 26 in underground silos. Last week's House defense authorization bill would provide a $107 million down payment for the new interceptors -- more funding that the military did not request.
"The United States has missile defense systems in place to protect us from limited ICBM attacks," Hagel flatly asserted in his opening statement.
During the Q&A session that followed, however, a reporter pressed him. "Mr. Secretary," he asked, "can you say with confidence that the ground-based interceptors in Alaska would actually shoot down a North Korean missile if it were fired at the U.S. given the very poor test performance of this interceptor?"
"We have confidence in our system," Hagel responded. "And we certainly will not go forward with the additional 14 interceptors until we are sure that we have the complete confidence that we will need. But the American people should be assured that our interceptors are effective."
Hagel's answer begged the question. He apparently was talking narrowly about whether the new U.S. interceptor would fly as intended. But until the full system has undergone rigorous, real-world testing, how can the Pentagon have the "complete confidence" to spend $1 billion on 14 more interceptors, increasing its inventory by nearly 50 percent? Likewise, how can House lawmakers have sufficient confidence in the GMD system to force the Pentagon to spend billions more on an East Coast site that it doesn't want? There's not enough evidence to warrant such certainty.
In these days of budget tightening, money is also an issue. Hagel acknowledged as much in his opening remarks, maintaining that the initiatives he just announced would maximize "increasingly scarce taxpayer resources."
But if the system doesn't work, Hagel's new initiatives would waste even more money. The Missile Defense Agency has already spent quite a bit -- about $90 billion since 2002 -- and plans to spend about $8 billion annually through 2017. Meanwhile, it has failed to demonstrate that the GMD or Aegis systems would actually perform in a real-world situation. Until the Pentagon can show that these systems are truly effective, it makes no sense to add more interceptors or build a third missile defense site.
Finally, we need to keep in mind that much more is riding on this issue than U.S. relations with North Korea and Iran. Building another missile defense site or adding more interceptors also could undermine U.S. efforts to reduce Russian and eventually Chinese nuclear arsenals. So if Secretary Hagel really wants to maximize scarce taxpayer resources and make the world a safer place, he should freeze the program until it works, and if it doesn't work, abandon it. Thirty years of fooling ourselves is enough.
Elliott Negin is the director of news and commentary at the Union of Concerned Scientists.