July 14, 2016

Report: U.S. Missile Defense Program, Exempt from Standard Oversight Procedures, is Costly and Unreliable

Pentagon Must Reinstitute Accountability Controls

CAMBRIDGE (July 14, 2016) — Congress is currently considering expanding the U.S. national missile defense system, despite the fact that — nearly 15 years after the Bush administration began deploying it — it has not been demonstrated to work under real-world conditions and is not on a path to do so.

What’s the problem? According to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), it’s that old adage, “haste makes waste.” Lack of accountability, UCS found, doesn’t help, either.

In its rush to get the system up and running, the George W. Bush administration exempted the program from standard military procurement rules and testing protocols. That ill-advised decision has not only run up the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program’s price tag, which now amounts to more than $40 billion, it also has produced a system that is incapable of defending the United States from a limited nuclear attack.

“The missile defense system is one of the most expensive and complex military systems in history, yet it is the only major defense program not subject to standard ‘fly before you buy’ performance standards,” said UCS Senior Scientist Laura Grego, co-author of “Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous U.S. Approach to Strategic Missile Defense.” “Fifteen years of this misguided, hands-off approach has resulted in a costly system that won’t protect the homeland.”

A Record of Failure

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush insisted on fielding a missile defense system within two years, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decided to give the program a free pass from customary Pentagon oversight. Since then, neither the Obama administration nor Congress has done enough to rein in the program.

The results have been abysmal. Since the system was initially fielded in 2004, the Missile Defense Agency has conducted nine tests pitting an interceptor against a target. The system destroyed its target in only three of them, despite the fact operators knew ahead of time when and where the target missile would be launched, its expected trajectory, and what it would look like to sensors. Regardless, the United States currently fields 26 interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and plans to install 14 more at Fort Greely.

As bad as it is, the GMD system’s track record—which has worsened over time—is even more dreadful given the tests do not reflect what would happen in an actual encounter with an incoming missile. Any country capable of launching a long-range missile would be able to outfit it with decoys and other countermeasures that could fool the GMD system’s sensors and interceptors. Analysts at UCS and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed out that inconvenient fact in a joint report they published back in 2000.

Even the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, J. Michael Gilmore, has acknowledged the program has serious limitations. His 2015 report on the GMD missile defense system concluded that that the tests have been “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”

Making a Bad Situation Worse

Instead of demanding better performance, some members of Congress want to broaden the program’s scope. Among other things, they want to build a third missile defense installation, which the Pentagon says it doesn’t need. They also want to develop a space-based defense system, despite the fact that a 2012 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that one with only a limited capability would still cost at least $300 billion.

Some even want to resurrect the idea of a building a missile shield that would defend the nation from a massive attack. The 1999 National Missile Defense Act called for deploying an “effective” system that would protect the United States from a “limited” nuclear attack, presumably by Iran or North Korea if and when one of them developed the capability. It was purposely defined as a limited system to avoid provoking Russia or China into expanding their nuclear forces as a counterweight. The current fiscal 2017 draft defense authorization bill in the Senate includes an amendment proposed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would delete the word “limited” from the legislation. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) went even further in the House version of the 2017 authorization bill, tacking on an amendment that would strip both “limited” and “effective” from the 1999 law.

“Expanding the missile defense system would be a recipe for disaster,” said Grego. “What Congress needs to do now is demand accountability, not push technological and economically unrealistic pipe dreams. The system shouldn’t be shielded from rigorous oversight.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.