The Failures of Missile Defense

The latest programs are scientifically unsound. Washington is throwing good money after bad.

Two recent scientific assessments of U.S. missile-defense efforts show that these programs are chasing scientific dead ends, unworkable concepts and a flawed overall architecture.

One assessment is the “Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force Report on the Science and Technology Issues of Early Intercept Missile Defense Feasibility”; the other is a report by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences, “Making Sense of Missile Defense.”

In some cases, the gap between what the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has been touting and the scientific facts is astonishing. For example, in an August 2011 handout, the MDA says “We will achieve early intercept capability against MRBMs, IRBMs, and ICBMs from today’s regional threats by 2020 or sooner.”

But one month later, the DSB concluded that early intercept in and of itself “is not a useful objective for missile defense.” In other words, DOD’s own scientists had to point out how far MDA has strayed from the basic physics of its systems.

In a March 6, 2012, hearing of the Strategic Force Subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) noted that the DSB and the NRC had expressed concern about the overall effectiveness of U.S. missile defenses. In response, MDA chief Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly referred to the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS) as the solution to improve reliability and discrimination capabilities.

Presumably Lt. Gen. O’Reilly already knew that the NAS study had concluded that PTSS should be cancelled. The study noted that the PTSS “is too far away from the threat to provide useful discrimination data, does not avoid the need for overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) cueing, and is very expensive.”

Once again, MDA’s plans were at odds with practical physics.

MDA and its prime contractors, supported by many in Congress, are focused on producing and fielding hardware rather than facing up to the physical realities of missile defense.

In 2002, President Bush directed early deployment of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system in Alaska and California by the end of 2004, allowing just two years for deployment. Subsequent flight tests showed this interim deployment was hardly even a scarecrow. Of seven flight-intercept tests since November 2004, five failed.

At its recent summit meeting in Chicago, NATO also succumbed to the imperative for early hardware deployment and resolved to “try to achieve initial operational capability by 2015” of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to “defend” Europe. But the DSB reports that the Aegis SPY-1 radar “is inadequate to support the objective needs of the EPAA mission,” that the TPY-2 land-based radar currently deployed in Turkey is in the wrong location, needs to be twice as big and mounted on a turntable so it can see in more than one direction.

Achieving effective missile-defense capability requires proven science. Without it, the current systems cannot overcome the fog and confusion of battle. Without it, deploying expensive hardware is throwing good money after bad.

The NRC recommends termination of Phase IV of the EPAA, which is intended to intercept longer-range Iranian missiles, assuming Iran ever develops such missiles. The NRC also reports on the shortcomings of the GMD system in Alaska and California. To overcome these problems, it recommends smaller, faster interceptors and a new East Coast site, perhaps in locations such as Fort Drum, New York, or Maine.

Perhaps most importantly, both studies point out that without the ability to discriminate enemy threat missiles from missile junk, chaff or decoys, U.S. missile defenses will not be effective.

Together, these studies make it clear that the current architecture of America’s missile-defense systems needs to be rethought to be effective. MDA’s plans are in turmoil, adding to costs and schedule delays and perpetuating the lack of physics integrity that has plagued these systems.

Nevertheless, the administration has announced plans for two new regional missile-defense systems (in addition to the EPAA), one to defend Iran’s neighbors and another to defend North Korea’s neighbors.

The administration and Congress need to take a deep breath and reexamine where the country is going with missile defense, applying the best science along the way. In the meantime, buying more flawed hardware won’t help.

The Hon. Philip Coyle is the senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC. Previously, he was associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Barack Obama.