FOIAed Missile Defense Documents: Syring’s Huntsville Presentation

, senior scientist | December 4, 2014, 2:10 pm EDT
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In mid-August, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Vice Admiral Syring gave a keynote speech at the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, AL. By most accounts it was a frank and interesting talk. However, conference security personnel limited journalists’ ability to photograph the slides or record the talk, which led to controversy and an eventually an apology by the conference organizers.

The few slides journalist Amy Butler was able to tweet looked interesting. Since they were marked “Approved for Public Release,” I asked the MDA office for them, but my request was declined. So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which met with success. Six weeks later, we received a copy of the slide deck and a transcript of the verbal remarks that accompanied it.

The slides and talk are quite detailed. Below are some of my comments, and I’d be interested to hear readers’ comments about what they found particularly interesting or important.

Framing the issue

Vice Admiral Syring chose not to spend his time patting the Agency on the back for having had a successful intercept test two months earlier, the first one in more than five years.  Instead he focused, usefully, on describing how the missile defense system (primarily the Ground-Based Midcourse system) got to where it is today, and what lessons could be learned.

And so he describes various pieces of the history that contributed to the poor technical state (my words) of the system: a decision to cut short normal engineering cycles, fielding significant numbers of interceptors before they’d been tested, poor quality-control culture of defense contractors, etc.

He accounts for much of what happened, but not why it happened–it’s a map of the direction the program took, but not who was driving and chose the route. Arguably that isn’t his job to point out, but it’s something concerned citizens do, so here we go.

While having an MDA director who seems reflective and willing to be frank and relatively transparent is a good sign, Congress and the administration shoulder the weight here.  Over the last decade, Congress did not hold the administration or the MDA accountable and require a sensible plan or insist on “fly before you buy,” despite having ample evidence that things were not going well and the plan was risky. While Congress’ supervisory responsibilities were weakened by executive order in 2002 and have not been fully reinstated, the anemic level of discourse about the current administration’s plan to field 14 additional interceptors by 2017, and allowing entrepreneurial Congress members to push for a third interceptor site in the face of the poor state of the existing system makes clear that Congress has little appetite for supervising the program.  And the administration also seems to have little interest in looking realistically at what role missile defense has to play in strategic plans.

Track Gate Anomaly

In August, George Lewis discussed the revelation on one of the slides Amy Butler tweeted that the same “track gate anomaly” that had caused the failure of the December 2010 intercept test had been observed in tests since 2001. The slide says it has been observed in 8 flight tests over 9 years.

In the transcript, Vice Admiral Syring says “We’ve never seen the issue affect a flight before until the [FTG]-06a flight.” Which I assume means that the track gate anomaly was never the primary culprit of a failure in a test of either the prototype or CE-I kill vehicle. He gives an explanation for this: the inertial measurement unit (IMU) used in the prototype tests and the CE-I kill vehicles were less sensitive than the new ones in the CE-II kill vehicles, and so the track gate problem is easier to see in the new interceptors—and more likely to cause a failure.

This doesn’t, however, address Lewis’ point that there appears to have been no attempt to fix the problem in the many older CE-I kill vehicles that are still in use. While the problem hasn’t appeared to have been the cause of any of the CE-I failures, it is still present and isn’t clear that it couldn’t cause a failure. Is this on hold until a new kill vehicle is designed?

Target Discrimination

I have been wondering about the claims that FTG-06b test demonstrated target discrimination. Vice Admiral Syring’s slide on page 29 shows a “dumbed down” target scene with four objects: a target and “operationally realistic countermeasures.” While the target was reportedly identified and destroyed successfully, he did not describe how much information the system had ahead of time about what the target and countermeasures looked like.

The easiest scenario is where the target looks very different from the countermeasures and the system knows what they all look like ahead of time; that is essentially a template-matching exercise. This is the situation in many of the tests that have used decoys. This is a necessary capability for being able to handle countermeasures, but is not the hard part of the problem for a real-world application. In that case, the defense will have limited information about what the objects will look like ahead of time, and the adversary may be trying very hard to disguise the warhead.

GMD test schedule & what about the 14 new interceptors?

I wrote a few weeks ago about the reported decision to cancel the next GMD intercept test that was scheduled for FY15 and hold a non-intercept flight (“CTV”) test instead. It looks like the decision to cancel the test may have already been made this summer. Vice Admiral Syring says, “…it’s actually a CE-II block one that we’ll test next year, oh I’m sorry, in 2016, let me get my dates right.”  He also says that

…I’m a big proponent of the CTV first, followed by an intercept flight.  I think we learned a lot from the CE-2 non intercept flight. And it gave us greater confidence going into an intercept flight and I am not going to deviate from that path.

So it seems that this is part of Vice Admiral Syring’s “test a little, learn a lot” philosophy, which certainly is an improvement from the “field a lot, test a little, retrofit a lot” approach that has characterized the past decade.

In fact, Syring insists that the U.S. “must fly before we field.” With which I wholeheartedly agree.  A key question, then, is if this means that the 14 new interceptors that are meant to be fielded will be put on hold until the interceptor type is properly vetted.

Addressing criticisms

Vice Admiral Syring uses the last minutes of his talk to address criticisms of the GMD program, including “MDA has not tested against an ICBM,” “We have not demonstrated the capability to do target discrimination,” “We can’t do hit-to-kill,” and “The GMD tests are scripted for success.” These are in some cases a simplified version of criticisms I have made myself (so simplified as to be inaccurate.) But what interests me is the spirit in which the criticisms were taken.

When I point out that the GMD has never had an intercept against an ICBM-range target, or that the tests that have been done are highly scripted, it’s not because I think the MDA is trying to pull one over on me.

I point it out because statements that the GMD currently protects the United States from a North Korean long-range ballistic missile are unsupported by the test program and are irresponsible.   But they are made on the left, right, and center. It is not a demonstrated capability; it is a system still in developmental tests with a poor test record and a history of poor oversight.

I point the problems out not because I think it’s so important to assign blame, but because a clear-eyed understanding of the current capabilities and the future potential of the GMD system is essential for making good decisions about how much to invest in it and what role it has to play.

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  • dinkydave

    Thank you for your work. So, we have a system that increases tensions because other countries believe this system threatens, or may threaten their deterrence. But, there is no reason to believe this system actually protects us. Will have to come back to this article and references later.