“This is about as close as we can come to an end-to-end test of our long-range missile defense system … I don’t want to ask the North Koreans to launch against us. That would be a realistic end-to-end test. Short of that, this is about as good as it gets with respect to that.” — Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, head of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), said Sept. 1 during a Defense Department briefing.

The flight test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) missile defense system Sept. 1 marked the first test intercept for the program in nearly four years. While this was definitely cause for celebration, considering that the previous two test intercept attempts ended with the interceptor rocket failing to leave the launch pad, expectations about the system’s usefulness should be checked.

Flight Test 2, or FT -2, using the latest test nomenclature for the GMD system, which seems to change annually , marked the first intercept by an operationally configured warhead. An interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., hit a target coming out of Kodiak, Alaska. This intercept was the sixth for the overall program — out of 11 attempts. During this test, no countermeasures were used, making it essentially a pointless exercise. Any country that would be capable and ready to launch an ICBM against the United States also would have the ability to shroud its missile in countermeasures.

What is truly disheartening is that the GMD program started off its flight test schedule with tests that included countermeasures: the first flight intercept attempt of the system, held Oct. 3 , 1999, incorporated one decoy, as did the next five intercept attempts. Three decoys were used during flight intercept attempts in 2002. Today, after seven years of effort, MDA has lowered the bar on what it even attempts to do.

Of course, countermeasures have long been MDA’s bte noire. MDA officials held classified discussion on them in 2002 after there was much criticism of the effectiveness and realism of the methods being used during testing. So perhaps it is no surprise that there were no countermeasures included in FT-2. However, this must be acknowledged when discussing the realism of the flight tests.

In short, they are not realistic.

Obering’s words about this being an “end-to-end” test may have been in response to statements made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the weekend prior to FT-2. While visiting one of the GMD interceptor fields in Ft. Greely, Alaska, Rumsfeld stated, “I want to see it happen … a full end-to-end process where we actually put all the pieces together. That just hasn’t happened.”

Even with FT-2, it still hasn’t happened, and there is no way it can happen any time in the near future.

An “end-to-end process” implies that all the components that would be used in the final GMD system as planned by MDA would be tested together at least once. Unfortunately, there are gaping holes in the GMD infrastructure that cannot be filled for some time to come. With these unknowns, we are left with uncertainty regarding how the system will actually perform, as there are some problems that can only be detected with actual flight tests (as we saw with the flight test failures in December 2004 and February 2005).

One of the missing pieces is the Sea-based X-band Radar . This system, required to help track targets during flight , has been stuck in Hawaii undergoing repairs since the beginning of the year. It was supposed to just make a brief stopover there en-route to its home port of Adak, Alaska, but has stayed longer than planned. The Sea-based X-band Radar was used to watch FT-2, but its information was not plugged into the overall system’s command and control infrastructure.

Also AWOL from FT-2 were the two satellite networks needed to support GMD. The Space Tracking and Surveillance System and the Space-based Infrared System High, which respectively would detect and track enemy missiles and allow for early detection of enemy missile launches, are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over their budgets. While this is, alas, not unusual for major space acquisition systems, MDA cannot count on the capabilities that these satellites are supposed to provide until well into the next decade.

Still, given the major technical difficulties that MDA still must work through, it can keep itself quite busy fixing its own technologies. MDA plans to conduct a follow-up test in December. FT-3 would have the same test configuration as FT-2. The only difference would be that FT-3 would officially be an intercept attempt. FT-2’s official primary objective was to test the upgraded radar at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. — meaning that the agency could avoid embarrassment if there wasn’t an intercept. Obering has not ruled out using countermeasures in FT-3, but MDA plans do not currently include their use.

Also expected to make an appearance in the test schedule are night tests and salvo launches. MDA actually did attempt a night time intercept once before, during IFT-10, on Dec. 11, 2002. It ended in failure when the kill vehicle failed to separate from the booster. A salvo test, where multiple targets are launched, would be a much more realistic test scenario, but don’t expect to see it any time soon (program officials make vague remarks of some time in 2008).

MDA seems to be heavily focused on managing expectations for its programs – almost as much effort as it expends on development of the systems. See Obering’s quote above for a good example of this. The truth is, there is much more that can be done to make the test system more stressful and reflective of potential threats. And given the system’s rudimentary state of development, perhaps it makes more sense to initially have less stressful scenarios for testing. But this fact should be acknowledged. To do otherwise is disingenuous at best and flat-out manipulative at worst.

Victoria Samson is a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank.