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What about the most recent missile defense test?

COMMENTARY | September 11, 2006

Labeled a ‘total success’ by the Pentagon general in charge, the Sept. 1 flight intercept was a real accomplishment. But it was the simplest test in the 10-year history of the program and did not reflect a real-world situation. Expert Phil Coyle says it is up to the press to explain this complicated, confusing story.

By Philip Coyle

Following the latest test of the U.S. long-range missile defense system, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, the Pentagon's missile defense chief, told reporters, “This test validated the confidence that I’ve expressed in the past with the performance of the system,” and said, “we’d have a good chance” of shooting down an enemy missile.

When it comes to understanding progress in developing U.S. missile defenses, Americans may be excused if they are confused. Public statements made by Pentagon officials and contractors are often so at variance with the full story that reporters in the United States and other countries don’t know what to believe or report.

This is especially true of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, the most costly and complex of the various missile systems the Pentagon is trying to develop.

The latest flight intercept test conducted on September 1, 2006, is a case in point.  The defending missile hit its target, and the test was immediately declared “a total success” by Obering.

[For earlier pieces on missile defense by Philip Coyle, click here and here.]

Before the test, program officials had gone out of their way to point out that hitting the target was not the purpose of the test. "We are not going to try to hit the target," Scott Fancher, head of Boeing’s ground-based missile defense program, told the Los Angeles Times. "It is not a primary or secondary test objective to hit the target."

While Missile Defense Agency officials acknowledged that hitting the target was a possibility, in a formal announcement the agency said the main objective of the test would be “to see if the optical sensors on the "kill vehicle" aboard the interceptor work as designed.”

Nevertheless, the interceptor did hit the target and MDA officials and contractors must have been both relieved and delighted. They had not had a successful flight intercept test for four years, not since October 14, 2002. Since then, in two different attempts the interceptor failed to get off the ground, and in the flight intercept test before that the kill vehicle failed to separate from its booster and couldn’t reach the target.

So hitting the target was a real accomplishment.  It was all the more notable because it included a number of “firsts,” including the first launch of an operational interceptor out of an operational silo at Vandenberg AFB, in California. In all previous tests the interceptor was launched from a prototype silo at Kwajalein. The latest test also was conducted with crews manning “operational” command and control systems in Colorado Springs. The test included an upgraded early warning radar at Beale AFB in California now also declared “operational.” And this test involved a new intercept geometry where the target was launched from Kodiak, AK., and the interceptor from Vandenberg. In all previous tests the target had been launched from Vandenberg, and the interceptor from Kwajalein.

But the Missile Defense Agency claimed more than just hitting the target.

Prior to and immediately following the test, Lt. Gen. Obering said that the most recent test “was as close as we can come to an end-to-end test of our long range missile defense system.”

This is surprising because the Sea-based X-band radar, recently laid up in Hawaii for repairs, was not in the loop, the early warning radar at the end of the Aleutian chain, called Cobra Dane, couldn't see the target because it is a fixed radar pointed the wrong way, and two planned missile-tracking satellite systems, SBIRS-High and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System are not yet on–orbit being years behind schedule and tens of billions of dollars over budget. Also, adequate discrimination of the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle interceptor, tracking radars and satellites all working together to guide the interceptor to the target has not been demonstrated.

Also notably, this latest test did not include any countermeasures. As Lt. Gen. Obering put it in response to a reporter’s question after the test, “No. we didn’t use countermeasures on this flight.”

All the previous GMD flight intercept tests have included countermeasures. Thus, while the interceptor hit the target, it did so without having to discriminate the target reentry vehicle from similar-looking decoys. To be sure, the decoys in past tests were so different from the target reentry vehicle that critics have complained about their value, but in early tests of a system still under development, such decoys are better than nothing.

Having no decoys or other countermeasures, the September 1, 2006, test was the simplest flight intercept test ever conducted in the GMD program.  Even the very first flight intercept test conducted on October 2, 1999, had one large balloon as a decoy, as did the next four flight intercept tests. In two of those tests the defender missed.

The next two flight intercept tests, both conducted in 2002, had three decoy balloons (one large and two small) to increase the difficulty of determining the target location.  But those were the last two successful flight intercept tests in this program until the latest, now four years later.

So after four years, notwithstanding the “firsts” legitimately achieved in the most recent test, from a discrimination point of view, the GMD system just conducted the simplest flight intercept test in its entire decade-long modern history. In that sense, the program is still back where it started, struggling to deal with the threat from decoys and countermeasures.

As the GMD program goes forward, media reporters should be asking questions about such matters to help inform members of Congress, the American public, and our allies about the true state of progress in missile defense.

Late last August, just a few days before the latest test, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toured the GMD interceptor site at Fort Greely AK. Afterwards, Rumsfeld told reporters that he wanted to see a real end-to-end test, “where we actually put all the pieces together; that just hasn’t happened.”

And it still hasn’t.

After the test Secretary Rumsfeld issued a formal statement which concluded, “While today’s test was a success, the test program is by no means complete. Tests will continue, some of which will be successful and some will not. This was a challenging test, and the tests will become even more challenging in the period ahead.”

The next test, scheduled for December, will unambiguously attempt to hit the target.  Success or failure, Secretary Rumsfeld’s remarks will still be true.

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