A Tough Week for Missile Defense Advocates

April 8, 2015
Laura Grego
Senior Scientist

It’s not the easiest of times for national missile defense advocates. The normally friendly House Armed Services Committee hearings on missile defense hosted some tough talk centered around a recently released, critical memo from two of the Joint Chiefs. And this weekend the LA Times release a pair of damning articles drawing connections between Senators and Congress members who sheltered expensive but poorly conceived and eventually cancelled national missile defense programs and their districts’ financial benefits from these programs.

Odierno-Greenert Memo

This remarkable memo is a short letter dated November 5, 2014, in which Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, and General Raymond Odierno, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, urge the Secretary of Defense to take a fresh look at the problem of defending against ballistic missiles. They state that “the present acquisition-based strategy is unsustainable” and that the Pentagon must develop a “more sustainable and cost-effective” “long-term” approach to both homeland and regional missile defenses. The memo was posted on Inside Defense on March 6. We have had a FOIA request for it pending since December 2014.

(The Navy operates the Aegis ship-based missile defense system, and the Army operates the Patriot and THAAD short and medium-range missile defenses and provides operational control of the Ground-based Midcourse homeland missile defense system.)

“Adjusting the Ballistic Missile Defense Strategy” gives the appearance of an unsolicited opinion. According to the testimony of Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, the memo came out of Navy-Army staff talks about missile defense. The participants there questioned the wisdom and fiscal responsibility of a missile defense strategy that emphasizes “shooting a rocket down with a rocket,” feeling they’ll always be on the “wrong part of the cost-curve.” This means that shooting down ballistic missiles will always be more expensive to the defender than the attacker.

Additionally, in the House hearing, Represenative Jim Cooper called the memo “astonishing” and suggests that the Service Chiefs may feel that missile defense is a “resource hog” necessitating hard choices for the Services. For example, the number of Aegis ships slated for a missile defense role continues to increase, limiting the number of ships that can be used to protect strike groups.

This is apparent, as well, in the Ground-Based Midcourse missile defense (GMD) system, the primary homeland missile defense. The tens of billions of dollars spent by the Missile Defense Agency have produced a system still in development with demonstrated reliability that is very low. It has never been tested in a real-world scenario and will not be for many years; even then, flight tests—which cost some $200M each—will be limited in number.  They will therefore be unable to establish high confidence that the system would be effective, even against a small number of unsophisticated missiles. No credible technical path to discriminating warheads from countermeasures has been attempted.

The two Chiefs suggest including “left of launch” and other non-kinetic means of defense as possible approaches to get around the expensive and inflexible course missile defense is on. “Left of launch” means preventing missiles from being launched in first place, whether it is by dissuading their development or deterring their launch (here “left” means “earlier” on the time axis of a graph). Other non-kinetic means of defense might be cyberwarfare or directed energy attacks.

We’ve argued for many years that the GMD is an expensive system with a limited future and that neither Congress nor the Administrations have been sufficiently skeptical about what they are buying. It’s unclear so far what concrete changes, if any, this “astonishing” memo will spur. But if it gets the Administration, in concert with the Pentagon and Congress, to take a holistic look at what role missile defense has to play, and to right-size its investment with respect to other approaches to reducing the nuclear threat—including nonproliferation and fissile material control, as well as vigorous diplomacy—this would be a great result.

The Sea-Based X-Band radar arrives in Pearl Harbor, HI, aboard the heavy lift vessel Blue Marlin on January 9, 2006. (Source: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

The Sea-Based X-Band radar arrives in Pearl Harbor, HI, aboard the heavy lift vessel Blue Marlin on January 9, 2006. (Source: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

LA Times articles

David Willman wrote two companion pieces in this weekend’s LA Times, the first describing, in a devastatingly critical way, four expensive and technically limited homeland missile defense projects (three have been canceled), and the second pointing out that a number of members of Congress with districts and states that benefitted financially from these programs “fought doggedly” for them “even after their shortcomings became obvious.”

The first piece mentions the cancelled Airborne Laser, Kinetic Energy Interceptor, and Multiple Kill Vehicle programs and why these programs were either technically or operationally infeasible. But Willman saves his energy to go into particular and scathing detail about the Sea Based X-band Radar (SBX), a $2.2 billion effort that, in the words of David Montague, former president of missile systems for Lockheed Corp. and co-chairman of a 2012 National Academy of Sciences missile defense report, “should never have been built.” And that is “irrelevant to ballistic missile defense,” according to David Barton, a physicist and radar engineer who also took part in the National Academy review.

The SBX is the primary tool that homeland missile defense has to discriminate between a target warhead and countermeasures. It was touted as a faster, easier way to get discrimination capability than the planned large X-band radar at Shemya Island, Alaska, and speed was deemed to be of the essence. But SBX has a very small field of view—much smaller than the planned Shemya radar— so is limited in its ability to be used against a field of multiple missiles.

Moreover, SBX was built as a test asset, so is not hardened against weather and attack in the way an operational system would be. It also has never been to its intended homeport of Adak, Alaska, and instead spends most of its year essentially mothballed in Pearl Harbor. It moves at about 10 miles per hour under its own steam, and so is expensive and time consuming to get into an operationally useable location.

Why did the U.S. spend upwards of $10 billion on homeland missile defense projects that are not useful or have been abandoned? One reason is that in 2002, missile defense was exempted from most of the “fly before you buy” Congressional oversight process in order to facilitate a fast deployment. Only parts of this oversight have been restored over time, so new projects, such as those mentioned, and including the proposed East Coast site, have not been required to go through a formal analysis of alternatives, which would compare the costs and benefits of different approaches to a problem. And it means that Congress is not required to decide if a program continues to be a good investment as it progresses through technological milestones the way it does for normal major military systems.