The following is adapted from the testimony of project director Joseph Cirincione submitted to the Government Reform and Oversight Subcommittee on National Security on September 8, 2000.
In the wake of President Clinton's decision to delay deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system, missile defense advocates are crying foul. They insist that the technology is here today. They claim a Clinton conspiracy is depriving the nation of effective defense.
Their belief, however, relies on technology that so far has eluded detection by all objective observers. None of the dozens of national missile defense systems proposed over the past 20 years has ever proven to be technically feasible. This includes the wide-range of systems researched and developed under the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program and the current weapons proposed by advocates.
It is highly unlikely that any candidate system can be shown to be militarily effective during the next eight years. That is, during the next two presidential terms neither the technology nor testing methods will provide an assured capability to defeat long-range ballistic missiles. It is possible that the next president may decide to proceed with deployment of a system, but that decision would be based on political considerations or the perception that the threat justifies early deployment, not on a demonstrated ability to defeat the likely threats.
Given the overwhelming advantage enjoyed by offensive nuclear forces, and the enormous technical difficulties inherent in any missile defense, this should not be surprising. It may be possible to someday construct a system that could provide at least some defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, we are years away from conducting the kinds of realistic tests that could provide our military and political leaders with the minimum confidence they must have before risking the lives of millions of citizens.
The past two decades of efforts to invent a viable national missile defense have been characterized by exaggerated claims of success and promises of performance that later proved false. It is difficult to recall a missile defense proponent who understated the actual performance of a system.The problems began with the false claims of proponents of the X-ray laser that helped launch the SDI program and continue through claims today that Aegis destroyers and cruisers can quickly and inexpensively provide a highly-effective defense against both intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.
In 1992, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed the accuracy of SDI officials' claims about the results of all flight tests of kinetic kill interceptors. This remains the only independent comprehensive review of missile defense test claims. GAO found that officials claimed five of the seven flight tests were successes and the other two were failures (one interceptor blew up on launch and one "Brilliant Pebbles" space-based interceptor shut down seconds after launch). However, GAO found a pattern of misleading claims, forcing them to conclude that SDI officials had inaccurately portrayed four of the five tests as successes, when they were not.
For example, these inaccurate reports included claims that a "Brilliant Pebbles" test was "a 90-percent success," and was ready to proceed to more advanced testing. GAO found that the "90-percent success" claim was based on a substantially downward revision of the original goals for the test to correspond with what the interceptor was able to achieve, not what was originally planned. Of the original four goals, none was fully met, including its complete inability to detect, acquire and track a target.
The GAO also refuted claims by officials that the ERIS (the precursor to the interceptor being tested as part of the current NMD system) ground-based interceptor had discriminated between the target and two decoys on its only successful intercept. The SDI director claimed in congressional testimony that the ERIS "did its own thing in…determining which of the targets to go after, whether the decoy or the target vehicle."
Investigators uncovered a different story. The ERIS sensors actually saw three objects in the test: the target and two balloon decoys tethered to either side of the target. The ERIS interceptor was pre-programmed to intercept the object in the middle. If the middle object had been a balloon decoy, the ERIS would have hit the balloon; it could not tell the difference. Later the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) director, in a letter to the Chairman, clarified that the ERIS role in target selection "did not constitute discrimination."
Misleading statements and lowered expectations for "successful" tests have lead to considerable confusion regarding the feasibility of national missile defenses. As a result, it is common to hear advocates of missile defense claim that their proposed system is ready to go, inexpensive to build and highly effective. But as former Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) Director General Lester Lyles told the Senate last year, directly rebutting the claims of the Heritage Foundation that effective sea-based missile defenses could be rapidly deployed, "It will not be the quick, cheap or easy solution that some outside advocates may have advertised."
President Clinton rediscovered this truth when, despite large funding increases by both Congress and the Administration over the past four years, the technical problems with the proposed National Missile Defense System proved overwhelming. He said on September 1, "I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology, and the operational effectiveness of the entire NMD system, to move forward to deployment."
Some argue that in 1993 President Clinton sabotaged plans that, if allowed to continue, would have produced a working and affordable missile defense by now. The Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) plan introduced by President George Bush and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney in January 1991 scaled-back the original SDI program. It proposed instead a space-, sea- and land-based system to destroy from 10 to 200 warheads "delivered by ballistic missiles launched from anywhere in the world to attack areas anywhere else in the world." The system relied heavily on the so-called "Brilliant Pebbles" satellite weapons.
Some advocate a return to such a system today. But their confidence in the concept is based on faith, not fact.
The Congressional Budge Office (CBO) at the time estimated that the 12-year cost of the GPALS plan would be at least $85 billion (in 1992 dollars). Annual expenditures would have averaged $8 billion. Since the system consisted largely of view graphs and concept studies, CBO pointed out that "the complexity of the Grand Forks and GPALS defenses suggests that total costs could exceed planned levels."
The GAO warned that the plan would have to "overcome tremendous technical challenges." This report was the last independent evaluation conducted of the GPALS program. It was not optimistic about the technical feasibility of the weapons proposed. "Such a system will push the cutting edge of technology," GAO warned, "SDIO must rely on some technologies that are as yet unproven and learn how to integrate them into a reliable system" For the system to work, the GAO advised, "significant advances must be made over the next several years in critical areas . . . if these advances are not achieved, schedule delays, escalating costs, and performance problems could occur."
Even if the technologies became available, the analysts said, there was still "the enormous challenge of integrating them into a cohesive system." In short, space- and sea-based systems proposed in the waning days of the previous administration were hardly the ready-to-go weapons that advocates now fondly remember.
Systems like Patriot and Arrow may prove useful against short-range Scud missiles, but long-range defense is still just a concept. It will be many years, if ever, before we are able to crack the case of the missing technology.