Writing in today’s Japan Times Online, columnist Michael Richardson raises several, hoary arguments as to the possible effectiveness of missile defense vs. massive retaliation as a form of deterrence vis-à-vis the DPRK’s l’enfant terrible and the latest brewing crisis on the Korean peninsula. We say “hoary” because true to the definition, the arguments are the same tired arguments dragged out of the closet by those opposed to missile defense. Our purpose here is to provide the facts that refute those arguments inform the debate at the same time.
1. “… neither the interceptors in silos in Alaska and California, nor the THAAD batteries, have been tested in combat. Nor have the 32 standard missile interceptors aboard 18 U.S. Navy Aegis ballistic missile defense warships.”
Of course the missiles listed have not been “combat-tested” – and neither have the Minutemen missiles in their midwestern silos, yet we don’t hear of anyone discounting their deterrent capability because not a single one has been fired under real, operational conditions from those silos. Yet there is a long and well-documented test record that would support a strong degree of confidence that the missiles will successfully launch guide and reach their targets when called upon. Periodically, a missile is selected at random, pulled from the silo and the nuclear warhead removed and replaced by telemetry one that is identical to the war shot, save the physics package. It is then transported to Vandenberg and launched, using a crew randomly drawn from the field for the test. This is the surety phase of testing a mature system, like the Minuteman.
In the developmental phase, where all three of the systems above are located (some, like the SM-3 further along than others like the THAAD), one builds a program of increasingly complex conditions and objectives. At first, you just test the airframe – will it launch and stage as designed? Then you step it up and add a kill vehicle and repeat. Then a target is added – a simple one at first. Does the kill vehicle separate from the booster, locate and guide on the target, ultimately intercepting it? Are the mechanics sufficient to execute a kill as predicted? Complexity is added – decoys, more targets in flight, and shots near the edge of engage-ability rather than in the heart of the envelope. Along the way previously determined knowledge points are either met or not. If not, the deficiencies are addressed, corrections made and re-tests conducted. Eventually you end up testing in as nearly an operationally real environment as possible under the auspices of OSD’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. In fact, one of the systems identified above, Aegis BMD has passed DOT&E testing. THAAD has been tested against multiple targets and the GBI tests have taken place in a geographical context that mimics a shot into Alaska and will be tested in a more roust fashion on a larger range against a complex target.
2. “In the last two years, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, which is responsible for testing and integrating the ballistic missile shield, has reported eight significant flight test delays, four target failures out of 18 target launches, and one interceptor failure in flight.”
Using the author’s “last two years” we will go from March 2007-March 2009 (latest fact sheet on MDA’s site):
- 26-Apr-07 FTM-11 Event 4 (successful)
- 22-Jun-07 FTM-12 (successful)
- 31-Aug-07 FTM-11a (successful)
- 6-Nov-07 FTM-13* (dual intercept – both successful)
- 17-Dec-07 JFTM-1 (successful)
- 1-Nov-08 Pacific Blitz (One target was intercepted, another was missed; all interceptors were version Block I missiles that had exceeded their service; no Block I’s are operationally deployed)
- 19-Nov-08 JFTM-2 (failed – interceptor flew normally until final seconds; cause not yet determined)
- SM-2 Blk4:
- 5-Jun-08 FTM-14
- 26-Mar-09 Stellar Daggers
- Sea-based tally 2007-2009: 9 of 11 successful since Mar 07 (17 of 21 since the program began in 2002)
- Ground-Based Mid-Course Defense (GBI’s)
- 25-May-07 FTG-03 (FTG-03 was a “no test” because the target malfunctioned after launch and interceptor was not launched)
- 28-Sep-07 FTG-03a (successful)
- 5-Dec-08 FTG-05 (successful)
- GBI tally 2007-2009: 2 of 2 or 2 of 3 successful (depending on how one counts a failed target) – since the program began in 1999: 8 of 13 including 3 of 3 using operationally configured interceptors.
- 5-Apr-07 FTT-07 (successful)
- 27-Oct-07 FTT-08 (successful)
- 25-Jun-08 FTT-09 (successful)
- 17-Sep-08 FTT-10 (No-test – target malfunctioned after launch)
- 17-Mar-09 FTT-10A (successful)
- THAAD tally 2007-2009: 4 for 4 successful (5 for 5 if you count FTT-06 in Jan 07 which was successful). Since the current test program began in 2006 – 6 of 6 successful with 2 “no tests” because of target failures.
So let’s look at those numbers again – March 2007 to March 2009, dates of Mr. Richardson’s picking: 15 of 18 tests that ended in a successful intercept where the target was destroyed. Paints a little different picture, eh?
A word about targets is necessary. The threat range for the variety of interceptors to be tested against range from SRBMs to intercontinental – 300 km to over 7000km. Unlike using old aircraft for drones, which typically are plentiful and generally reliable even in the late stages of life, target missiles for testing are usually former US battlefield missiles, like the Lance, specially constructed and instrumented targets that nearly mimic the threat (because after all, as cash-strapped as Kim is, North Korea isn’t likely to sell us a TD-2 to use as a target vehicle – and with more than 180 successful flights since 1993, ours have been a bit more successful…) and occasionally, actual threat missiles like the widely proliferated SCUD. Unlike, say the QF-4 drone, some ballistic missile targets are restricted by international treaty, specifically the INF treaty signed by the US and Russia which prohibits construction of ground-based ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 1000km and less than 5500km. Specifically, Article VI, which states
1. Upon entry into force of this Treaty and thereafter, neither Party shall:
(a) produce or flight-test any intermediate-range missiles or produce any stages of such missiles or any launchers of such missiles; or
(b) produce, flight-test or launch any shorter-range missiles or produce any stages of such missiles or any launchers of such missiles.
2. Notwithstanding paragraph 1 of this Article, each Party shall have the right to produce a type of GLBM not limited by this Treaty which uses a stage which is outwardly similar to, but not interchangeable with, a stage of an existing type of intermediate-range GLBM having more than one stage, providing that that Party does not produce any other stage which is outwardly similar to, but not interchangeable with, any other stage of an existing type of intermediate-range GLBM.
So – in a nutshell those are just some of the challenges faced in just building the target missile, much less surrogate warheads and decoys.
3. “It is also far from certain whether U.S. rockets designed to shoot down longer-range missiles can distinguish between decoys and the real things.”
GBI tests were successful against countermeasures of increasing complexity in tests conducted from 1999-2002 (IFT-3, IFT-6, IFT-7, IFT-8, IFT-9) and as the BMDS matures, testing will continue to push the limits of system performance in modeling and simulation and increasingly complex flight tests – implementing a crawl, walk, run approach to testing. For more see the latest publication listing all missile defense programs currently extant below:
2009 Missile Defense Agency Programs
4. “By the end of 2009, there are scheduled to be a total of 864 interceptors in the U.S.-led missile shield. However, the U.S. military calculates that there has been an increase of more than 1,200 additional ballistic missiles in the past five years, bringing the total outside the U.S., NATO, Russia and China to over 5,900. Short-range missiles (150-799 km) make up 93 percent of this total while medium-range missiles (800-2,399 km) comprise six percent.”
OK – on this we can agree. Ballistic missiles have been a growth industry since the end of the Cold War. And at present, the greatest threat is to our deployed forces and the homelands of our friends, allies and partners in many regions across the globe, but especially in the Middle and Far East. In fact, here is the latest NASIC publication on the foreign missile threat:
So – yes, our interceptor numbers lag the threat but the FY2010 budget significantly ramps up SM-3 and THAAD production (almost doubling original procurement numbers) and as most any air/missile defense planner will tell you, active defenses are but one of three legs of missile defense — the other two being passive defense (like dispersal, deception, and hardening) and offensive operations (e.g., disruption of C2 circuits by cyber attack, SCUD-busting, etc.).
5. “Ultimately, the only deterrent likely to prevent Pyongyang using missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction is the knowledge that the counter-strike from the U.S. and its Asian allies would annihilate the North Korean regime.”
I’ve always found it curious that the most ardent opponents to missile defense are blind to the conundrum they construct by the all-or-nothing approach of relying on massive retaliation as a deterrent. Missile defense is but one piece in a larger program of deterrence aimed at a broad range of threats. The lack of missile defense plays into the hands of those who would employ the concept of minimal deterrence and gain an upper hand in escalation dominance. Consider the above again – suppose North Korea in some final Götterdämmerung-esque lashing out launches the handful of WMD armed missiles it could have in the near future at South Korea, Japan and say, Hawaii or even LA. Please explain how it is in someway better that we have no means to intercept those missiles and instead turn the North into a smoking, radiating ruin after thirty minutes – with all the tragedy of consequence management from both strikes? And suppose it is just a single launch against LA, or San Diego if the LA-ites among us are feeling a bit paranoid, do South Korea and Japan attempt to dissuade the US from either a massive or even “proportional” nuclear response because of those self-same fears of long-term effects of fallout in the region? Surely China would have something to say about that too.
It seems to make sense to have all the tools necessary to handle the wide range of threats across the spectrum and missile defense – credible, effective theater, regional and global ballistic missile defenses are just such an effective tool in a range of options to be employed to prevent or when necessary, win war…
Preventing war is preferable to fighting wars . . . Maritime ballistic missile defense will enhance deterrence by providing an umbrella of protection to forward-deployed forces and friends and allies, while contributing to the larger architecture planned for defense of the United States.
– A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, October 2007
“When all else fails—when all the negotiations have broken down, when there is a missile in the air—you have to have the ability to destroy it, because the only other ability that you would have would be to apologize to those that have died.”
– Lieutenant General Henry ‘Trey’ Obering, USAF (retired)