Mixed Signals on Missile Defense

On Saturday, July 14th the Pentagon conducted the fourth intercept test of the National Missile Defense (NMD) system. Delayed by more than 18 months due to technical problems, early reports from Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization indicate that “everything worked in a nominal (or acceptable) mode.” However, in the aftermath of the successful test–the first in almost two years–Kadish’s remarks were unexpectedly subdued. He cautioned that it takes many weeks to analyze the test data and that, “we have a long road ahead in all the missile defense activities.”

Kadish’s caution is warranted. Preliminary information shows that there was a problem with the prototype radar used to tell ground controllers if the kill vehicle hit the target. In the case of the first NMD intercept test, which took place in October 1999, missile defense advocates were quick to praise the test as an unqualified success. Months later, however, test data revealed that the interceptor homed in on the large, brightly illuminated decoy balloon that helped guide it to the mock warhead. As Tom Collina of the Union of Concerned Scientists, aptly stated, “They got lucky.” Counting the most recent NMD test, the test record stands at two hits and two misses–hardly an outstanding ratio.

Philip Coyle, formerly the Pentagon’s chief civilian test evaluator, noted in a report last September that the NMD system’s effectiveness is not yet proven, even in the most elementary sense. In fact, the program is so immature that ”a rigorous assessment of potential system performance cannot be made.” Coyle described how flight tests are being “dumbed” down to ensure the public perception of success, and interceptors are being given advance information they will not have in real world engagements.

Undeterred, missile defense enthusiasts like Senate minority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) viewed the successful test as a reason to deploy the system as soon as possible. “We should put this right at the top of the agenda, not allow it to be pushed aside by Democrats,” the Senator remarked on Fox News the day after the test.

Bush has talked of a deploying a “layered” missile defense system that would combine the ground-based NMD system with sea-, air-, and space-based components, but the specifics remain vague. In keeping with this plan, in FY 2002, the Bush administration has requested $8.3 billion for missile defense programs, an increase of 57% over last years’ budget.

The Pentagon is planning on spending a substantial portion of the budget increase on an ambitious new testing schedule of the various missile defense systems. In the next year and a half, the Pentagon wants to conduct up to 17 flight tests. Each test costs about $100 million. Also in the budget request are funds to build a new missile defense test site in Alaska. The idea is that the new test site could become the command center for a rudimentary missile shield as early as 2004.

Because both the expanded testing and the new test facility will violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow, the State Department sent out a 14-page memo to all U.S. diplomatic posts abroad warning that these violations could take place ”in months, not years,” as previously thought.

While the Bush administration is trying to move fast and furiously with the missile defense programs, the fact remains that none are currently up to the task. As Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has pointed out, “There is no test that could possibly be conducted in the next twelve months that would violate the ABM Treaty. Neither the ship-based systems nor the Airborne Laser are ready to test against any target, let alone an ICBM.”

Russian officials have indicated a willingness to discuss changes in the ABM Treaty to address U.S. concerns about emerging ballistic missile threats, but warned that a U.S. “go it alone” approach on missile defense could seriously jeopardize future nuclear reductions in Russia’s armaments and encourage China and other nations to build up their arsenals.

Given that the $70 billion spent on missile defense technologies over the past two decades has not produced a single workable device, a crash program to deploy a system is unlikely to fare better. Before President Bush throws away four decades of progress on arms control and risks sparking a new arms race, he should rethink the consequences of moving full speed ahead with a missile defense system and readjust the direction of his policy to bring it into line with strategic, political, and economic realities.