Bush administration officials have launched a barrage of view-graphs and talking points against international and domestic opposition to their missile defense plans. (Click here to read recent talking points from the White House to U.S. Embassys and Senior Officials on missile defense.) It is, in part, a strategy designed to restore an aura of inevitability around plans to deploy missile defenses and abrogate the ABM Treaty. It is part prophylactic, guarding against a possible failure of the July 14 test. Officials released charts depicting multi-billion dollar plans to test and deploy a wide-range of systems. Prototype land, air and sea weapons, they say, could be tested just once and then rushed into "emergency deployment."
Here are a few points to keep in mind while evaluating the new proposals.
The System That Didn't Bark. The most notable aspect of the announced plans is what is NOT there. Many officials came into office believing they had an effective missile defense system that was ready to go, but had been held back by Clinton administration adherence to the ABM treaty. There was tremendous interest in fielding "boost-phase" intercept systems deployed on Navy Aegis ships that could theoretically hit a missile in its launch phase. Heritage Foundation experts and other advocates had argued for years that such a system could be deployed quickly and cheaply to provide a comprehensive protection of the United States and its allies. Officials have now tacitly acknowledged that it "ain't necessarily so." The emphasis has shifted from any particular system to: "We need a robust development and testing program to determine what works."
Get a Technological Grip. The Administration has view graphs so far, not a working system. All the proposed systems are, at best, in the very early stages of development. The most advanced system, the ground-based interceptor, is still four years away from beginning operational testing. It will take years, not months to determine if any system will work at all. Officials should expect that their ambitious test schedule will begin slipping immediately. Every single NMD test has been delayed since the program was last restructured in January 1999. Key tests have slipped by 4 months to 1 1/2 years. The July 14, 2001 test was originally planned for May 2000, then rescheduled for January 2001, then postponed until this July. The next test in the series, now set by the Bush administration for October 2001, was originally set for January 2001. Test this year and next will continue to use refurbished Minuteman II rockets to launch the interceptor because the Boeing-built interceptor is 18-months behind schedule. Officials would be fortunate if they could conduct even half of the 17 tests planned for the next 17 months.
Improved Test Realism Does Not Require New Test Facilities. There is no compelling reason to construct a new test facility in Alaska. It does not appear that targets launched to or from Alaska would, in fact, have any greater speed (and thus come closer to replicating the speed of an ICBM) than targets launched from Vandenberg, California to Kwajalein in the South Pacific. MIT Scientist Ted Postol calculates that these flight paths are actually shorter and thus slower and less realistic than the existing test shots.
"The distance between Kwajalein and Vandenberg is 7,825 km, the distance between Vandenberg and Kodiak [Alaska]is 6,490 km and Kwajalein to Kodiak is 3,570 km. The speeds of objects launched on minimum energy trajectories are as follows: Vandenberg to Kwajalein: 6.7 km/sec; Kwajalein to Kodiak: 6.4 km/sec; Vandenberg to Kodiak: 5.2 km/sec."
Former Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Philip Coyle had noted in his August 2000 report for the National Missile Defense Deployment Readiness Review (just released and available by clicking here) that some of the test limitations could be mitigated by launching targets from Hawaii to Alaska. But he also recommended launching targets from Alaska to Kwajelein, a change that would not require ABM Treaty modifications and would, in fact, more closely replicate a North-South trajectory. More importantly, Director Coyle noted several major problems with test realism that were more critical than flight trajectories and which have a much more profound bearing on whether or not a system could succeed.
Coyle notes that the decoys accompanying the target in flight have been reduced from nine to ten originally planned in the 1997 test documents, to three balloons of various sizes in a 1998 test plan revision, down to one large balloon in July 1999, just three months before the first intercept test. "Since the large balloon and the deployment bus have IR signatures very dissimilar" to the target warhead, he notes, "the EKV can easily discriminate the [target] from these objects." Discrimination remains one of the major unsolved problems of any system designed to intercept in the mid-course, or space portion, of a missile's flight path.
Restoring the original test plan and testing against multiple, realistic decoys could be done quickly, cheaply and resolve once and for all whether it is worth pursuing a mid-course intercept system.
It's Not the Treaty, Stupid. Talking points prepared for all Administration officials argue that "the United States needs release from the constraints of the ABM treaty to pursue the most promising technologies and basing modes to field limited, but effective missile defenses." In fact, as shown briefly above, there are no effective missile defenses ready to field. An enormous amount of designing and testing is necessary before any system can be proven to work in even a rudimentary manner. 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. For both these systems, it is common sense to proceed step-by-step up the difficulty ladder, testing first against slower, short-range targets. System advocates and weapons testers should agree that rushing a system into its toughest tests serves neither the program nor the national interest. Weapons tests should not be manipulated by the desire of some to force the abrogation of the ABM treaty.
Don't Rush Me. Officials have suggested that if the Airborne Laser hits its target in its first shot in 2003, they may rush the system into the field. So, too, with the ship-based weapons. There is no urgent reason to violate established Defense Department procurement practice and law to rush unproven systems into production and deployment.
The law requires that every weapon system go through operational testing (that is testing of a production-sample weapon under realistic conditions) before it can go beyond limited production and be fielded by U.S. troops. The reasons are sound. History shows that systems fielded with inadequate testing often fail to perform adequately, require costly improvements and can endanger the lives of military personnel. The president wouldn't fly a plane that had been tested only once - he should not entrust the lives of millions of Americans to a weapon that had only be tested once.
Moreover, there is a great deal more to a deployment decision than hitting a target under ideal and highly artificial conditions. The Airborne Laser is a modified 747 and presents a highly vulnerable target to any adversary (as do the ships). It must fly very close to a missile launch point (60 to 200 kilometers) and would likely come under attack by surface-to-air missiles (which are smaller and much faster than ballistic missile and common throughout the world) and attack aircraft. (For examples of ranges and types of Russian-made SAMS, click here.) There are also several possible countermeasures to the laser weapon, including polishing the metal surface of the missile to deflect the laser (as do the mirrors inside the weapon itself), coatings on the missile to disperse the heat, or rotating the missile to disperse the heat. None are now used, since there is no laser to counter. But many could and would appear if it the weapon were to be introduced. Much of the apparent logic of the Administration's case rests on the fallacy of the last move, ignoring what is likely to occur after a weapon is introduced.
All these issues and more must be considered by military leaders and officials to determine if any of these system would actually perform effectively in combat and whether the introduction of these systems would result in a net increase in U.S. national or allied security.