Joshua PollackTesting European Missile Defense

Plenty has already been said about last week’s missile defense announcement, with the diplomacy and the politics taking center stage. Now let’s see if we can’t tip the balance back just slightly towards the wonky. After all, that’s where President Obama put the focus on April 5 when he said, “As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven.”

That last word, “proven,” helps to explain the several mentions of testing in the White House’s fact sheet. Note the added emphasis in this description of current plans:

  • Phase One (in the 2011 timeframe) – Deploy current and proven missile defense systems available in the next two years, including the sea-based Aegis Weapon System, the SM-3 interceptor (Block IA), and sensors such as the forward-based Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance system (AN/TPY-2), to address regional ballistic missile threats to Europe and our deployed personnel and their families;
  • Phase Two (in the 2015 timeframe) – After appropriate testing, deploy a more capable version of the SM-3 interceptor (Block IB) in both sea- and land-based configurations, and more advanced sensors, to expand the defended area against short- and medium-range missile threats;
  • Phase Three (in the 2018 timeframe) – After development and testing are complete, deploy the more advanced SM-3 Block IIA variant currently under development, to counter short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missile threats; and
  • Phase Four (in the 2020 timeframe) – After development and testing are complete, deploy the SM-3 Block IIB to help better cope with medium- and intermediate-range missiles and the potential future ICBM threat to the United States.

If you are wondering about that “current and proven” in Phase One, the manufacturer claims 15 successful SM-3 intercept tests. (Update: MDA has a test record fact sheet. CDI has a detailed rundown through June 2008. And here’s Wikipedia.)

By contrast, when the decision to deploy the previous version of a European defense system was announced in October 2007, not only had the system not been tested, but no plans for testing had been made; so stated an October 2007 report of the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). A test plan was later accepted at the insistence of Congress.

As much as anything else, then, the change from 2007 to 2009 expresses a different philosophy about the need for “proven” systems, meaning ones that have been tested.

In fairness, though, we don’t know what a similar DOT&E report would say today about the new “Phase One.” How fully applicable is past Aegis/SM-3 testing to the proposed deployment? It’s not entirely clear.

Testing Against What?

We’ll also have to wait and see just how rigorous the testing programs are for Phases Two through Four. A nagging problem in the BMDS test regime has been the absence of what MDA calls “complex countermeasures” from its midcourse intercept tests. (The midcourse category includes both GBI—the basis of the discarded European proposal—and SM-3.) David Wright of UCS alluded to this issue in his statement that the new system, like the old, “does not square with technical realities.”

UCS is well-known as a tough critic of midcourse defenses. The organization sponsored the Countermeasures report of 2000, which argued that midcourse systems, which intercept warheads above the atmosphere, can be flummoxed by the attacker’s use of certain technologies, including the creative use of balloon decoys.

MDA’s initial response to this problem was to argue that adversaries like North Korea actually were not yet capable of mastering this level of countermeasures technology. Later, it initiated development of the Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) system, designed to overcome decoy deployment with large numbers of interceptors.

Unfortunately, MKV is being canceled. According to the Secretary of Defense, it turned out to be “plainly unworkable, prohibitively expensive and could never be practically deployed.” This could be a problem, since surprisingly sophisticated missile developments in Iran, which have led to revised intelligence assessments, make it that much less likely (on the face of it) that challenging countermeasures are still many years away.

So what does the new intelligence estimate say about countermeasures? And how will this issue be reflected in future SM-3 development and testing? Something tells me that we’ll be circling back to these questions at some point.

Update. David Wright and UCS colleague Lisbeth Gronlund now have an essay in the Bulletin laying out the argument against an Aegis-based defense at somewhat greater length. It would be interesting to know what sort of defenses they would prefer for NATO Europe: terminal-phase systems like Patriot? Boost-phase systems like those advocated by Richard Garwin or Ted Postol? Both of these? Nothing at all? There are serious arguments to be made for any of these positions.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Excellent wonkfodder here!

    A question about the SM-3 Block Ix: While it intercepts the target with an EKV in the exoatmospheric regime, it’s the low exoatmosphere (I’d guess 100 – 250 km). Would an IRBM/MRBM threat complex encounter enough atmosphere for long enough there to provide useful discrimination of low-mass decoys while the SM-3 is flying out?

    This also goes back to the role THAAD might play, as it can intercept both in high-endo and low-exo regimes.

  2. hass (History)

    Wonder how this report on how foreign intelligence agencies are pressing Iran via the IAEA to disclose its missile designs is related:

    Iran stopped meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year over Western allegations of covert Iranian nuclear weapons work because the nuclear agency was demanding access to the designs for its Shahab-3 missile and other secret military data, according to both Iranian and IAEA officials.

  3. Gelfant

    MDA’s fact sheet on Aegis says “To date, there have been 18 successful intercepts in 22 Missile Defense Agency/Navy tests and Navy operational firings.” (

    This fact sheet is also dated Aug 18, 2009. It also says “In response to the increasing demand for
    Aegis BMD capability from U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command, the Missile Defense Agency
    and the Navy have begun a joint initiative to add two more CGs and one DDG Aegis BMD Atlantic Fleet ships by
    2010.” While this may be the case, the FY2010 budget also cut SM-3 buys from 24 to 18. So, Jeffrey could have been crowing about this architecture in August, frankly. Also, I have no data on any land-based SM-3 testing, so I would assume DOT&E might have a few issues, as well. Question for all other wonks: Why does the radar have to go along with the GBIs? Does the X-Band in CZR add nothing to the proposed architecture—I mean, what other “sensors” is this Administration talking about and why was this one so objectionable?

  4. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Thanks for this post Josh. It calls into question the judgement of those who – wrongly in my view – think this is a decision that should be “applauded” on technical grounds.

  5. b (History)

    “regional ballistic missile threats to Europe and our deployed personnel and their families;”

    A question to the wonks (and Obama). What are realistically “regional ballistic missile threats to Europe”.

    As a European, I am not aware of any.

  6. Josh (History)


    The total cited in the MDA fact sheet also includes SM-2 tests and the intercept of USA-193 with an SM-3. That might explain the discrepancy.

    It seems to me that they’ll be buying more SM-3s now than was planned in the budget request. Jeff, for his part, has been saying nice things about Aegis and SM-3 at this blog for about two years now.

    I don’t believe there has been any land-based SM-3 flight testing just yet.

    Your question about the Czech X-band radar is a good one. The administration statements express a preference for a smaller, relocatable version of same, to be sited somewhere in Europe, but where exactly is not stated.

    The reasoning behind these decisions is somewhat obscure. The changes are attributed to developments in technology and intelligence, but it’s hard to say what specific developments are driving which features of the new planned architecture. That there are cost efficiencies and a testing record to point to is undeniable, but we are still left with some room to perceive political or diplomatic objectives at work. I’ll have to leave that analysis to others.

  7. Matt Hoey (History)

    I’m comparing apples to oranges here but we’ll certainly come away with our BMD tech in more countries than with the previous MD strategy. Perhaps this is a point worthy of further discussion.

  8. sekant

    “Does the X-Band in CZR add nothing to the proposed architecture—I mean, what other “sensors” is this Administration talking about and why was this one so objectionable?”

    For an answer, you may want to look at the EastWest Institute study on the Iranian ballistic missile threat (, in particular point 4.17 to 4.23

    The argument being that if your concern is actually Iran, your Xband radar should not be placed so that it would be facing the nose/cone of potential Iranian missiles (should it be fired to Europe or the US) as the cross-section would be very small. To be able to discriminate, your radar should insofar as possible be in a position to “paint” missiles from an angle, increasing thereby the cross section.

    Not a techie myself, so can’t argument. But kind of makes sens.

  9. Sophie B. (History)

    @ Gelfant and Josh,
    Gen. Cartwright ‘explained’ the issue about the radar in the Q&A to the DoD Briefing of 17.Sept
    ( the European Midcourse Radar is a 360° omnidirectional one and Russia was concerned it might be used to look deep into its territory and monitor potential ICBM launches. The X-Band in turn is a uni-directional radar only able to monitor the direction it faces once you put it down.

  10. kme

    Josh: Clearly there are significant geopolitical factors – that’s illustrated most clearly by the Polish reaction. They’re aghast, when if it was really about missile defence they should be over the moon, as the decision replaces a system designed to protect the USA from ICBM threats with one designed to protect Europe from IRBM/MRBM threats.

  11. Vic (History)

    Actually, CDI’s latest update on the SM-3 test record was in June 2008.

    One thing that I am unclear about is how they’re going to test the shoot-look-shoot capability they’re saying that this new system can support. Also, apparently the system can handle “scores” of interceptors being launched at one time. I’d like to see that: given the Patriot’s issues with a cluttered air picture during OIF in 2003, keeping track of that many objects at one time, much less intercepting all of the targets, is quite an undertaking.

  12. Bob Reed (History)

    I believe that the faster and smarter arguments fo rchanging the BMD plans, and scrapping the agrements we had with our allies, is a false choice that is short sighted and a bait and switch of sorts. In my humble opinion I don’t understand why the AEGIS ships can’t be used while the work progressed on the agreed upon missile battery. I also strongly disagree with the cancellation of the MKV project.

    That said, I can see the operational effeciency and military flexibilty of a mobile radar, instead of the fixed Czach sute, might serve the requirements better. But, it must be able to substantially offer the same level of performance as the one previously agreed upon.

    However, the change to the BMD plan doesn’t strategically provide an important benefit to the Poles that they were counting on; that of American troops being on their soil…

    Especially in light of Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008, the Poles, as well as others in eastern Europe, would have enjoyed tha strategic trip wire of an American troop; one tha would have given the Russians pause strategically, if not tactically, before cavalierly employing their military forces…

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