Catalyst Summer 2016

Shielded from Oversight

In a disastrous approach, the Pentagon has let the nation’s $40 billion missile defense system bypass normal procurement procedures

Then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates (left) and a US Army colonel inspect a ground-based interceptor missile silo at Fort Greely, Alaska, in 2009.
Photo: Missile Defense Agency

By Elliott Negin 

President Obama has had to address a number of daunting challenges inherited from the George W. Bush administration, including two wars and an economy in free fall. But one glaring problem that has received remarkably little attention during his two terms is the ill-considered Bush-era homeland missile defense system, which has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars and lulled Americans into a dangerously false sense of security.

To be sure, the genesis of the missile shield program dates back to President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Star Wars” speech. But the real trouble began in 2002, when the Bush administration, in its rush to deploy the system, decided to exempt it from standard Pentagon oversight procedures and insisted on fielding it within two years. That disastrous decision has not only run up the program’s price tag, which now amounts to more than $40 billion, but also produced a system that has never been demonstrated to work under real-world conditions.

“The Bush administration’s logic was that the need for missile defense was urgent—so urgent they couldn’t take the time to do it properly,” says Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the authors of a new report detailing the drawbacks of this approach. “Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the results. Unlike virtually all other major weapons systems that are required to meet rigorous ‘fly before you buy’ performance standards, they fielded the missile defense system without any evidence it will work as advertised.”

A Record of Failure

The goal of what is officially called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is to protect all 50 states from an attack by a small number of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The presumed culprit? Iran or North Korea.

Testing began at the tail end of the Clinton administration. Since then, there have been a total of 17 tests pitting one of the missile defense system’s interceptors against a target. GMD system operators failed to destroy their target in nine of them, despite the fact they knew ahead of time when and where a target missile would be launched, its precise dimensions, its expected trajectory, and its speed.

Five of the first eight tests, conducted before the system was fielded in 2004, were successful. Since the initial GMD system was installed at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, however, the Missile Defense Agency has performed nine intercept tests. Only three succeeded in destroying their targets. Regardless, the Missile Defense Agency currently fields 26 interceptors at Fort Greely, four at Vandenberg, and is planning to install 14 more—despite a record of failure that has worsened over time.

Moreover, the GMD system’s abysmal track record—as bad as it appears—masks the fact that the tests do not reflect what would likely 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.

“The Missile Defense Agency is trying to do something akin to hitting a bullet with a bullet, which has proven difficult enough for it to do under simplified, scripted conditions,” says Grego. “More than 10 years after it was first fielded, the GMD system still hasn’t faced the kinds of conditions that would be expected in the real world. It’s an extremely challenging task, to say the least.”

For its part, however, the Obama administration steadfastly maintains that the GMD system is ready for prime time, at least against the threat of future, hypothetical Iranian or North Korean long-range missiles. Earlier this year, for example, Brian P. McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the “US homeland is currently protected” against such attacks. No testing evidence supports that claim.

Haste Makes Waste

So how did the Pentagon wind up with such a dysfunctional program?

Ground-based interceptor missiles

The ground-based interceptor missiles currently in place at Fort Greely in Alaska are equipped with a “kill vehicle” similar to the prototype shown here (see inset), intended to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. Despite a $40 billion price tag, the system has a poor track record and has yet to prove its efficacy.
Photos: US Army (Fort Greely); © Missile Defense Agency (prototype kill vehicle)

The roots of this fiasco date back to the months following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and subsequent passage of the Patriot Act in Congress shortly thereafter. With a single-minded focus on security, and using North Korea’s embryonic ballistic missile program as a pretext, the Bush administration withdrew the United States from its Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which had prohibited both sides from fielding a missile defense system to protect its entire territory. That opened the door for then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to exempt the Missile Defense Agency from standard procurement rules and testing standards in order to try to deploy a system within two years. That proved to be a Herculean—and impractical—task.

Laura Grego

Photo: Richard Howard

Laura Grego: Sometimes It Does Take a Rocket Scientist

As director of the UCS climate impacts team, Adam Markham has traveled the world from Alaska to Australia, engaging with biologists, indigenous tribal leaders, ranchers, archaeologists, policy makers, historic preservationists, park rangers, and many others.

Fourteen years ago, astrophysicist Laura Grego joined UCS to focus on the technology and security implications of national missile defense and space security. Since then, she has been cited as an expert source in the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New Scientist, New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post, among other publications, and has appeared on the Discovery Channel, Fox News, and NPR. She is the author or coauthor of roughly 30 published papers on a range of topics, including the newest UCS report Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous US Approach to Strategic Missile Defense.

As a senior scientist in the UCS Global Security Program, Grego has immersed herself in the technical details of the US missile defense program, pored through thousands of pages of government documents and scientific studies, and come to the conclusion that the government’s rush to put a system in the field without the oversight typical of a major weapons program has resulted in a $40 billion system with no demonstrated capability of intercepting enemy missiles under real-world conditions.

“I’m grateful to UCS supporters for helping to make this analysis possible and for getting the word out about it,” Grego says. “I’m motivated in this work by my continued concern about the grave dangers to humanity posed by nuclear weapons. And the dangers in our government’s pursuit of missile defense go beyond the waste of taxpayer dollars. An overly optimistic view of the system’s capabilities could prompt decision makers to act more aggressively than they might otherwise, which could actually increase the risk of an adversary launching nuclear missiles at the United States.”

Contrast the special treatment the Pentagon has afforded the missile defense program with how it handled the development and deployment of the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile. On average, the Navy tests this missile—a key component of the US strategic arsenal—six times a year, and it has aced more than 150 tests since its design was finalized in 1989. It’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison given the time it takes to set up and analyze a missile defense test and its extraordinarily high price tag, but the Trident II example demonstrates that, with proper oversight, the military can ensure system reliability.

When it comes to missile defense, however, nearly 15 years after the GMD system was put on the fast track, the Pentagon’s own testing officials have said the system has no demonstrated operationally useful capability to defend the US public from a missile attack.

Aside from its dubious efficacy, how about its deterrent value? In 2010, the Obama administration’s Ballistic Missile Defense Review listed among the top policy priorities for homeland missile defense that it should “dissuade [Iran and North Korea] from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).” Six years later, Iran and North Korea are both continuing to develop missile technology, so the US missile defense system has clearly not dissuaded them from doing so. What’s more, the mistaken belief that the system can block an attack introduces another layer of risk, since it might make the United States more likely to opt for a military solution to an international crisis before exhausting diplomatic ones.

“The bottom line is that the missile defense program must be brought under rigorous accountability and oversight protocols,” says Grego. “The president and Congress need to stop writing a blank check to this project, to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are spent on technology that actually makes us safer.”