Missile defense may be on, but there’s nobody home

Victoria Samson here, commandeering ACW for a bit (per Dr. Wonk’s approval, of course) to talk a bit about the activation of the U.S. missile defense system. According to the WashTimes’ Bill Gertz, the U.S. military is getting all systems ready to go in case they need to shoot down an errant Taepodong 2 ballistic missile. Sounds good, right? Finally getting something for the estimated $92 billion that we’ve spent on missile defense in the past 20+ years?

Er, no. There are a couple of small problems with this scenario.

1. The system in question is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program. It has nine interceptors in the ground in Ft. Greely, Alaska, and two more in Vandenberg AFB, Calif. This system has a wonderful track record of making five intercepts out of ten attempts. I don’t know about you, but that sort of testing history makes me feel all secure and warm inside. And this was done during heavily scripted scenarios where we knew when the test target was going to fly, what it was going to do once launched, what it would look like, and how it would behave. It’s doubtful that the North Koreans will be as obliging as to give us all that information.

Plus, the last test intercept was made back in October 2002. The past two times – December 2004 and February 2005 – the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) tried to attempt an intercept, the U.S. rocket didn’t even leave the launch pad. (For the latter, it turned out that the arms holding the missiles up in their silos weren’t properly built for the salty environment in which they were fielded, so the MDA is having to replace those components in all the silos.) MDA had to back up and in December 2005 hold a flight test where their major goal was to get the rocket off the ground. That, they were able to do.

2. The radar system that is needed to help detect missile launches, the sea-based X-Band Radar (SBX), is still floating around and undergoing tests outside of Hawaii – nowhere near its home port of Adak, Alaska. The satellite network being built to track missiles once they’re launched – the Space-Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) – isn’t planning its initial launch of two test satellites until next year, with the goal of getting the system up and running somewhere around 2012. That is, if they can keep on target despite getting their funding for the program cut this year. The House Appropriations Committee recommended a $67 million drop for STSS in the FY 07 budget debate, as they were concerned that MDA was jumping ahead of itself with the program. And the command and control system necessary to link everything together was cited in a recent report by the Pentagon’s Inspector-General’s office as having such poor network security that it very well could be hacked.

3. Looking at the other side of the equation, we’re uncertain as to what the North Koreans are planning. If it turns out they’re launching a satellite, the United States might be a bit embarrassed at having attempted to shoot down someone else’s space assets. That might set off a nasty precedent that we, who depend so heavily on our space hardware, would suffer from the most.

4. But let’s say that magically all these issues were resolved. What exactly does it mean that the system is on? Good question. Short answer: no idea. The MDA, having apparently better lobbyists than the rest of the Pentagon, is free from having to do boring things like create operational requirements, lifetime costs, or schedules for its programs. While it has been saying since the end of the 2004 that the United States has a “limited” defensive system deployed, no one has been able to wrestle an exact definition of what constitutes an operational system out of them. Is it when GMD has passed operationally realistic tests? If so, then missile defense may never be considered operational.

In these particular circumstances, when we say that missile defense is “on,” maybe it’s that the troops at the deployment sites are on full alert. Maybe it’s that we have ships in-theater monitoring the situation. Or maybe it’s that, like with much of missile defense, we’re relying on smoke, mirrors, and vaguely worded statements to mask what we can’t do.

NB: Noah at Defensetech.org has been on fire in following this issue. Mosey on over there and check it out.


  1. David Wright (History)

    It seems likely to me that if NK decides to launch something, it will be an attempt to put a simple satellite in orbit, similar to the August 1998 TD-1 test. There is tremendous potential PR benefit from doing that, and NK would still get to test key parts of the launch technology (although not reentry technology).

    If they do, they would again likely fire essentially due east over Japan, as with the TD-1, to gain the benefit of the earth’s rotational speed. This trajectory would carry the payload well south of the continental US, so it would not look like an attack on Conus, but could carry it roughly in the direction of Hawaii. So if the Sea-Based X-band radar is currently in that region, it may be able to track it.

    If the launch occurs and is a space launch attempt, the US should be able to get clues to that from the flyout trajectory and the trajectory of the payload, and would hopefully be reluctant to shoot at it. But who knows, the US could see this as one of the few chances the missile defense system may have to shoot at a missile that doesn’t have countermeasures.

  2. Muskrat (History)

    Appropos of the comment above and point #3 in the posting, I wonder most about command and control issues. Nobody has ever admitted to there being a coherent CC plan for missile defense. When you have a) the possibility of flight profiles that, at least early in the flight, might be ambiguous as to orbit/impact trajectory, and b) the short timelines associated with command and control for nearby systems such as Aegis, you have to wonder. Will the decision to fire be made by a ship commander, or duty officer? Based on how many seconds of tracking data? Even if the radars could reliably predict the track for a midcourse intercept, who makes the call on whether to fire a GMD? The president? The combatant commander? The base commander? Cheney?

    What’s the criteria for firing? A likely impact on U.S. soil? Any launch? Poll ratings?

    The cheesiest thing about these “announcements” is that by using anonymous sources, the Pentagon gets to avoid answering all of the hard questions that people like Ms. Samson pose.

  3. Haninah

    I think we should all be very, very grateful that this is all happening right now. The Koreans are basically giving us (both the US defense community, and the MD-skeptic community) a dry run at what a crisis would look like, allowing us (not us personally, the US defense community) a chance to rehearse and evaluate its crisis decision-making, at least, and us (the MD-skeptic community) a chance to ask all these hard questions and for once get some news coverage for it, and maybe even some answers—and all this in the context of a threatened Korean test, rather than a threatened Korean strike. Let’s hope the defense community is taking this situation as seriously as we are and using it as a chance to rehearse all these decisions. Thank god this is only a dry run!

  4. John McGlynn (History)

    I very much enjoy reading Victoria
    Samson’s analyses. I wish however that when ArmsControlWonk or CDI experts or the other blogs provide MD comments, especially about anything involving North Korea, that Japan be brought into the picture. Japan, afterall, is the 2nd MD arm in all of this, and various laws and systems have been or soon will be put into place to address regional or joint (with US) MD keyed to North Korea and China. Plus all that money Japan has agreed to spend. Specifically, what’s Japan’s role in the current “crisis”? Merely radar tracking no matter how aggressive the US response might be to any possible Taepodong 2 launch?

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