More Official Bluff and Bluster on Missile Defense

March 18, 2013
Laura Grego
Former Senior Scientist

Last week, Jay Carney, the White House spokesperson, stated in a press conference, “I can tell you that the United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack.”  The confidence in that statement was reinforced by the White House announcement that it would add 14 more interceptors to the Ground-based Midcourse (GMD) missile defense system to buck up that capability to defend against North Korean missiles.

To anyone following the progress of the ballistic missile defense program in the U.S., that was a stunner. (To anyone following the rhetoric, though, not so surprising. More on that below.)

Some of the cost of adding these interceptors—at an estimated cost of about $1 billion—will be offset by cutting Phase 4 of the administration’s sea-based Aegis missile defense system. Phase 4, originally slated for 2020, had been delayed until at least 2022. It was facing technical problems and an unclear concept of operations, and was a major irritant to Russia and China and hence likely to complicate nuclear cuts. We applaud the administration’s decision to cut it.

But does adding interceptors to the GMD system make any sense? Does the U.S. have any confidence that they could actually stop a missile attack? The answer is no.

Despite the Ground-based Midcourse missile defense system being fielded in 2004, it has never been tested against an ICBM-range target and won’t be at least until 2015. The tests are highly scripted. And in the almost nine years since 2004, the GMD system has only had seven intercept tests—four of which have failed and a fifth of which appears to have partially failed. The last successful intercept test was December 2008—more than four years ago.

Of the 30 deployed Ground-based Interceptors (GBI), 15 are the operational but obsolete CE-I version, and 10 are CE-II missiles that have been taken off operational status because of a known design flaw. The recent test of the CE-II was considered successful, but it wasn’t a test with an interception or even a target.

The 2012 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report charged with comparing boost-phase ballistic missile defense to other options noted the dire state of the GMD program. The study identified six fundamental precepts of a cost-effective ballistic missile defense and found “the current GMD system deficient with respect to all of these principles.”

Not only are there many technical problems of the system as it is deployed, significant conceptual problems have not been addressed—most importantly that of decoys and other countermeasures. These confuse the GMD sensors and keep the system from locating the actual warhead that it should be intercepting. A 1999 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate stated that Iran and North Korea could develop such countermeasures by the time they flight-test their ballistic missiles, yet no intercept tests have included realistic countermeasures. No coherent or effective plan for addressing this showstopper has yet been proffered by the Missile Defense Agency. The NAS study reports that the Missile Defense Agency has made little progress on addressing the countermeasures issue over decades of work. The recent “brain drain” at the Missile Defense Agency, does not bode well for the prospects of even attempting to devise a sound approach to the problem.

While these criticisms mount evidence that missile defense system is in deep trouble, the message does not seem to be getting through clearly to decision makers. This much is evidenced by March 7’s statement by Carney. In fact, that statement is one in a long line of U.S. officials declaring confidence in the ability of U.S. missile defense to protect against a North Korean ballistic missile. See George Lewis’ excellent compilation of these claims. The deep disconnect between the government’s assessment of its own missile defense capabilities and assessments of other experts is glaring; who will our leaders hear in a time of crisis?

The U.S. needs to think carefully and clearly about its response to North Korea’s troubling brinksmanship. It can’t do that job well when laboring under the misapprehension that we have a working strategic missile defense system. A mistaken belief that our missile defense system does work may cause the U.S. and its allies to consider military solutions before exhausting diplomatic options, and to engage in behavior that may make conflict more likely.