Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering’s July 30
, “Missile Defense Hits Mark
” [page 19], is misleading in several respects.
To begin, he claims that if missile defense naysayers had had their way, they “would have stopped deployment of silo-based homeland defenses.” He goes on to say:
“Not only have we fielded a system capable of countering the most pressing long- and short-range threats we face today, but we are also evolving this system with ever-more capable sea- and space-based elements to defeat more robust future threats.”
First, the silo-based homeland defenses have not proved that they can reliably defend the United States against a single ICBM. During heavily scripted flight testing, the system has made an intercept in six out of 12 attempts.
Next, the missile defense system that we have deployed in Alaska and California cannot defend the United States against an ICBM outfitted with rudimentary countermeasures – something any country capable of launching an ICBM
also would have the capacity to do.
Furthermore, going against the recommendation of the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA)
own internal reports, the system has never been tested as it is supposed to be used. Generally speaking, the operational concept for air defense is to fire at least two missiles at every target. This is what we saw during the hottest part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, when the Patriot missile defense system was active. The silo-based missile defenses have never seen that sort of testing configuration.
statement also implies that the silo-based missile defenses exist to defend the U.S. homeland against short-range ballistic missiles. This is not the case. The silo-based missile defenses are intended to defend against ICBMs; anything shorter is well outside their capabilities.
He goes on to say that because of missile defense, during last summer’s missile tests by North Korea “we had, for the first time, the means to defend all 50 states against a possible attack.” True, we had missiles in the ground. However, the system has never been declared operational;
the Pentagon has never said what it would take to declare the system operational;
and it very well may never be declared operational.
In the meantime, we have gaping holes in the overall system’s capabilities: We are missing the satellite networks needed to detect and track a North Korean missile launch, and we have a sea-based X-band radar designed to track enemy missiles that has spent more time in Hawaii getting repaired than it has been based in its home port of Adak, Alaska.
dismisses flight test failures since 2001 as being merely due to “component malfunction, not basic design or functional flaws.” That is missing the point. There is nothing in the essential concept of missile defense that is beyond the laws of physics: It is getting the system to work properly that is the crux of the matter. If the system does not
work due to engineering problems, it is just as ineffective as if it failed due to design flaws.
With this assertion – “Since September 2005, 18 of 19 flight tests have been successful, including tests of the long-range silo-based interceptors,” – one gets a false idea of how the missile defense systems have been faring.
First, September 2005 is an odd time from which to start measuring missile defense successes; it almost seems to have been picked arbitrarily to give the MDA a better track record. Second, it ignores the fact that the long-range silo-based interceptor system had a flight test failure in its most recent test May 25.
Prior to that, in the time frame created by Obering’s statement, it only encompasses one other test of the system, which did indeed include a flight test intercept. Go back one year earlier, which would have been at the point where the Pentagon had been given a presidential directive to have an initial missile defense system up and running, you have to include two additional flight test failures.
Missile defense has much to prove still. In the meantime, by extrapolating far beyond what the test record can demonstrate, we are led to believe that the system can do more than it actually can. This could come back to haunt us, should policymakers ever make the mistake of putting all their faith in the system during a time of conflict.
Victoria Samson is a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, Washington.