U.S. Missile Defense: Time to Go Ballistic

It’s time to go ballistic. It will take years to develop a more reliable Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle. In the meantime, Washington should pursue a dual-hedging strategy for missile defense.

The United States needs to pursue a “dual-hedging” approach towards the evolving U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS). Although the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) successfully conducted a test of the existing national system on June 22, when the Pentagon intercepted a simulated incoming warhead in outer space, critics on The National Interest website and elsewhere have correctly identified deficiencies in the current variants of the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) now on the 30 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) based mostly in Alaska, with a few in California. Between 1999 and 2013, only half of the 16 tests of these EKVs succeeded.

Even so, critics’ proposed strategy of suspending work on building U.S. defenses until ballistic-missile defense (BMD) technologies significantly improve is excessively and needlessly risky. The danger is that the rogue-missile threat to the U.S. homeland could develop more rapidly than it takes to develop and test a reliable new EKV and make other fixes to the GBIs. While BMD technologies will never be perfect, missile defenses continue to improve, providing some means of deterring missile threats by emerging nuclear-weapons states that might aim to threaten the United States—such as North Korea.

In addition, the critics tend to analyze each U.S. BMD component in isolation, and fail to appreciate all the synergies currently or soon available throughout the system. The best strategy would be to continue to try to improve the existing GBIs during the years it will take to develop and test a new EKV, meanwhile using the growing capabilities already available in the Aegis/Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) to help fill the gap until more capable systems become available in the long term, as funding and technologies allow.

The June 22 test, the first successful GBI intercept since 2008, should help restore some confidence in the existing Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. Nonetheless, neither of the two variants of the 150-pound “kill vehicles” are sufficiently reliable and effective to serve as the foundation of a long-term GMD architecture. They cannot provide a robust defense of the U.S. homeland if North Korea or another difficult-to-deter, hostile country were to develop the capability to attack the United States with more than a few nuclear-armed warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Capability Enhancement-I (CE-I) EKV, deployed from 2004 to 2007 and currently on some 20 GBIs, has only succeeded in half its tests. It failed its most recent drill last July. The somewhat more advanced CE-II variant, presently on approximately 10 of the GBIs, failed its first two tests in 2010, leading the Pentagon to suspend planned purchases of at least 14 more CE-II-armed GBIs until that variant achieved a successful test, which it did on June 22.

Despite its March 2013 decision and the recent test success, the Obama administration should continue to develop a new EKV to replace the current variants, which were rushed into service a decade ago. The aim should be to have a more reliable kill vehicle that undergoes a comprehensive development and testing phase before deployment. The tests should be more frequent, involve interceptions at higher speeds and longer distances, simulate a range of countermeasures including decoys, and encompass both the entire system and its critical components, which are often manufactured by diverse subcontractors. A more modular design than with the current EKV variants would make it easier to replace and upgrade the kill vehicle’s components, which can take a year with the existing variants.

Future contracts with Boeing, which has been the prime contractor for the GMD since 2001, or the next lead systems integrator should be written to include incentives for quality improvements, reliability, maintenance, and good systems engineering to make the GMD more robust against defects. Cost cutting, though important, is the highest priority of the existing contract that began in 2011 and will expire in 2018. This has proved penny-wise but pound-foolish, since Boeing and other contractors have lost money due to failed tests, whose causes might have been averted.