Profile: Philip E. Coyle

Senior Advisor, Center for Defense Information

Critics of the U.S. missile defense program are practically a dime a dozen, but few can match Philip Coyle when it comes to technical credibility.

Coyle’s criticisms are grounded in his experience as the U.S. Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, a post he held from 1994 to 2001 — longer than anyone else in the 20-year history of the office.

In 2000, he was asked to prepare a report assessing whether the national missile defense system, which had failed in two of three intercept attempts at that point, would be effective.

His answer then was the same as it is now — no. The Ground Based Midcourse Defense system, he says, has yet to demonstrate the capability to defend the United States under realistic operational conditions.

Coyle’s name also has appeared in print over the past year due to his service on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.

He talked about missile defense and BRAC-related issues in a recent telephone interview from his Sacramento, Calif., office with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

What are your main concerns about the Pentagon’s missile defense effort today?

My main concern is the continuing emphasis on deployment and on claiming an operational capability rather than focusing on the basic scientific and technical obstacles that they have to overcome if missile defense is to be successful.

I support research and development on missile defense. I think it’s the kind of thing that the U.S. military should explore.

In fairness, Congress has driven the current approach because it passed the law saying the Pentagon should deploy a missile defense system as soon as possible.

What are your thoughts on the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) being more than a year behind schedule in fielding an operational national missile defense system?

I’m not surprised. The history here is that MDA says it’s going to do things but then doesn’t. For example, they recently announced that they put two more missiles in the ground at Fort Greely, Alaska. But in 2004, when they had only six in the ground, they had said that they’d have 10 more for a total of 16 very soon. Now in 2006, they have only added two.

Most reporters don’t remember their original promises and just report on the latest thing that MDA announced without the broader context. So with respect to the delay on the operational system, I’m not surprised.

Is there an upside to the delay in putting the system on alert — does it allow for more testing, for example?

After the tests in late 2004 and early 2005 in Kwajalein [ Atoll] where the interceptors did not take off, the Pentagon diverted missiles that would have been emplaced at Fort Greely for operational use to be used instead for testing. From my point of view, that’s a good thing.

Has the MDA made any progress in addressing your criticism that they are not conducting op erationally realistic tests of the national missile defense system?

No. MDA directors have promised on numerous occasions to increase the realism of the flight intercept tests, but it keeps not happening.

The most recent flight test had no target at all. If that’s all they’re ready for, there’s nothing wrong with that. But that shows that they’re farther behind now than they thought when I was in the Pentagon a decade ago.

MDA failed in its only attempt at a nighttime intercept, and they haven’t repeated that test. That’s just one example of a more realistic test that they need to get to.

They aren’t having successes very often that move the ball forward. The most recent flight test was fine, but it didn’t move the ball forward relative to where they were years ago.

If they have 20-30 flight tests to go before they’re ready for more realistic operational tests, at the rate they’re going, it could take them over 50 years before they get ready.

The Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System and certain unmanned reconnaissance drones were used successfully in battle before undergoing operational testing. What makes missile defense so different?

Missile defense isn’t nearly as ready as those systems were.

How do you respond to the argument that even a relatively untested missile defense system is better than having no defense at all?

They’ve said in the past that it will have 90-percent, 80-percent, 70-percent effectiveness. It’s nonsense. And they’ve backed off. Now they say better than zero. That could be .001 percent. It’s misleading to the American taxpayer to say that we have an operationally effective capability when we don’t.

Keep in mind that missile defense is really difficult. It’s like trying to hit a hole in one in golf while the hole is going 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) an hour. And if the target is using countermeasures, then its like the green is going 15,000 miles per hour, with lots of black circles looking just like the hole, and you don’t know what to aim at. It’s very tough work. A truism in missile defense is that if the enemy has enough missiles, some of them will get through.

Former Defense Secretary William Perry has said that the best air defense systems we had were only 30-percent effective, and missiles are even harder to shoot down than aircraft. To claim 70, 80, 90 percent is foolish.

The MDA successfully tested the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, the Aegis missile interceptor and the Ground Based Midcourse Defense systems in late 2005. Don’t they deserve some credit?

They deserve credit, especially for Aegis, but the other two tests did not involve targets.

Do you agree with MDA officials who say the Aegis sea-based missile defense system is ready to defend the country if called upon in an emergency?

I give the Navy credit for the work they’ve done on Aegis. They have a tradition of quite realistic testing at sea, which is carrying over to their work in missile defense. And I applaud that.

While the November test was important, I’m not confident the capability is ready. I’m a little concerned about scrubbing the next test.

Sea-based missile defense may have significant difficulty defending against anything not in the immediate area of the ships.

Think about it this way. If I were sitting in your office, and I threw a rock at you and gave you warning, you might have a good chance to bat it away. But if I throw a whole bunch of rocks, and you’re not sure when I’m going to do it, you’ll be lucky to bat a few away, and some will hit you. If your job is not only to defend yourself but your entire office — this corner and around that corner — you’re going to have a much more difficult time preventing the rocks from landing. If you’re job is to defend the whole building or block or Washington, it’s almost impossible.

How did the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles and Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Ala., survive the BRAC process?

Those places were natural homes for that work. That’s where the history and capability is. And in the case of Huntsville, it turned out that it made sense to move the MDA headquarters from the Washington area to Huntsville where it is closer to the workers they supervise.

What lessons do people need to take from the BRAC process?

One of the lessons is that the BRAC process is all about military value. It was the tiebreaker when other factors might have argued for a different outcome.

The actions that we approved did not all necessarily save money, but made sense from the standpoint of military value.

Another lesson is that communities concerned about losing a military base need to start addressing that issue sooner rather than later.

The last BRAC process was 10 years ago, and maybe the next one won’t happen for eight to 10 years. But look at installations that were successful. They identified weakness and fixed them, and that takes years — like Los Angeles Air Force Base. The conventional wisdom was that they would be on the list, but they arranged for a land swap where they traded land that was valuable to the city and the airport, and in exchange got a new high-rise office building, which they needed for the scientists and engineers who do space work.

That move reduced the military’s footprint and took the issue off the table, but it took several years. So for the communities worried about this, start now.