May 2017 Missile Defense Test Was Not Held Under Real-World Conditions, New Analysis Concludes

Published Jan 24, 2018

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (January 24, 2018)—Despite assurances from the Missile Defense Agency that last May’s test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system was “exactly the scenario” of what would be expected in a nuclear attack, it was not held under real-world conditions, according to a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). While the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation’s annual report states that the GMD system’s capabilities have improved, the UCS analysis finds that this improvement is incremental.

Only the second test of five held since 2010 to succeed, the May 30, 2017, exercise resulted in a GMD interceptor hitting a mock enemy warhead, demonstrating that the upgraded kill vehicle and booster generally work as intended. In addition, the mock enemy missile flew faster, higher and farther than in any previous test.

At a post-test press conference, however, then-Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring claimed the test was “exactly the scenario we would expect to occur during an operational engagement.”

The UCS analysis concluded otherwise.

“The Missile Defense Agency simplified the test to enhance its chances of succeeding,” said Laura Grego, a UCS senior scientist and co-author of analysis. “If it challenged the system with a realistic scenario, it would probably have failed.”

As in previous tests, system operators knew approximately when and where the mock enemy missile would be launched, its expected trajectory, and what it would look like to sensors, Grego said. Likewise, the May test pitted one GMD interceptor against a single missile that was slower than an ICBM that could reach the continental United States, without realistic decoys or other countermeasures that could foil U.S. defenses.

After the test, the Operational Test and Evaluation office upgraded its assessment of the GMD system, but included an important caveat. It noted that the system “has demonstrated capability” to defend the U.S. homeland from a small number of intermediate-range or intercontinental missile threats with simple countermeasures,” while previous reports have said the system had a “limited capability” to defend against this threat. But this capability was demonstrated “when using all its sensors and command and control programs,” which may not be available. Nor would a real-world attack necessarily be limited to these simplified conditions.

“The GMD system has destroyed its target in only four of 10 tests since it was fielded in 2004, and the system’s record has not improved over time,” said Grego. “It failed three of the four tests preceding the one in May, despite the fact that the tests were conducted under more simplified conditions than what would be expected in an actual attack.”

According to a 2016 UCS report Grego co-authored, a primary reason for the GMD system’s reliability problems is not lack of funding, but lack of rigor. In its rush to get the system up and running, the George W. Bush administration exempted the program from standard “fly before you buy” oversight that requires the system to pass realistic tests before being deployed.

That ill-advised decision has not only run up the system’s price tag, which to date amounts to more than $40 billion, but it also has produced a system that is incapable of defending the United States from a limited nuclear attack.

“This system has been decades and tens of billions of dollars in the making, and still very little is asked of it. It gets a pass, over and over. Throwing money at it isn’t a remedy for its problems. The test data show that we can’t count on the current system to protect us,” said Grego.

“Despite incremental progress and improvements, the system is a long way from providing reliable protection against a real-world threat,” she added. “We need to focus on the root of the problem, and that is making sure an adversary’s missiles never get launched in the first place. Only diplomacy has a realistic chance of reducing the risk of a crisis escalating out of control. Missile defense won’t fix this problem.”