Here's Why the U.S. Missile Defense System Is Utterly Broken

Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report: the system to defend the U.S. from ballistic missiles doesn't work, and probably never will. But it gets worse. Congress then voted to expand the broken system, allocating money for a new, sub-par missile defense site. How did this happen?

It's the latest iteration of federally-funded cognitive dissonance that has been going on for years. In theory, the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system—which is overseen by the Missile Defense Agency —should be capable of launching missile interceptors, each tipped with a "kill vehicle" that detaches, detects and destroys the incoming threat. In the real world, ground-based missile defense has failed all three of its flight tests since 2010.

Yet, the United States keeps building it. Thus far, 30 interceptor missiles have been deployed at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The Pentagon says it plans to deploy another 14 interceptors in Alaska by 2017. However, additional flight testing intended to demonstrate the system's capabilities and limitations is not scheduled to be completed until at least 2022.

After reviewing a report from the Department of Defense, which proposed an accelerated testing schedule, the Government Accountability Office, which acts as the investigative arm of Congress, concluded:

Since 2003, we have found this approach of concurrently manufacturing, deploying, and testing interceptors is high risk because tests may uncover issues requiring costly design changes and retrofit programs....

It is unlikely that DOD can successfully accelerate the pace of GMD's testing given its testing track record and the increasing complexity of planned tests…

In addition, the report provided insufficient information to assess whether accelerating GMD's testing pace is prudent because it did not address the potential full cost, benefits, and risks of accelerating testing.

Translation: It's broken, the Defense Department has no clear idea how to fix it and throwing more money at this problem will only dig us in deeper. The GAO has calculated that, by 2017, the GMD system will cost taxpayers more than $40 billion.

And now Congress wants to break ground on a third site on or near the East Coast—the military equivalent of a bridge to nowhere.

Hello? Is This Thing On?

What makes this worse—yes, there's always a "worse"—is that the GAO was not the first, but the third government agency in recent years to conclude that GMD was in need of a complete overhaul. In 2012, The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council published a 260-page study, saying that the Missile Defense Agency's efforts "have spawned an almost 'hobby shop' approach, with many false starts on poorly analyzed concepts." The Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation issued a report in February 2014, raising doubts about the "robustness" of the technology.

Here's Why the U.S. Missile Defense System Is Utterly Broken

In fact, a researcher at the National Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation reviewed previous editions of that Pentagon report and culled together the following quotes:

2011: "To date, GMD has demonstrated a limited capability against a simple threat."

2010: "To date, GMD has demonstrated a limited capability against a simple threat."

2009: "To date, GMD has demonstrated a limited capability against a simple threat."

2008: "While GMD has demonstrated a capability against a simple foreign threat, GMD flight testing to date will not support a high level of confidence in its limited capabilities."

2007: "To date, GMD demonstrated a limited capability against a simple foreign threat. GMD flight testing to date is not sufficient to provide a high level of statistical confidence in its limited capabilities."

2006: "The program still needs additional flight test data under stressing conditions to validate models and simulations and to increase confidence in the models, simulations, and assessment of system capability."

How bad is this? It's so bad that an independent review panel commissioned by the government once recommended reducing GMD flight tests—because the inevitable failures would undermine its deterrent value against foreign attacks.

And those GMD interceptor missiles already deployed in California and Alaska? They don't work, but the National Academy of Sciences has a spiffy idea on how to recycle them: remove them from their silos and use them as practice targets when the Missile Defense Agency finally figures out a better system.

How Did This Happen?

If the GMD system were suddenly endowed with the power of speech, its first words would likely be those of Admiral James Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

The answer is President George W. Bush, who made construction of a national antimissile system a priority after taking office. Beginning in 2001, his administration spent billions per year to develop various missile defense technologies. The White House envisioned a scaled-down version of President Ronald Reagan's "Strategic Defense Initiative," which had sought to create a shield against a massive Soviet attack. The Bush administration favored a limited system, whose main purpose would be thwarting a small number of ballistic missiles that might be fired at the United States by adversaries such as North Korea or Iran.

But, what's the best way to shoot down an incoming ballistic missile? To answer that, you need to consider the entire flight path of an ICBM, from liftoff to reentry.

Here's Why the U.S. Missile Defense System Is Utterly Broken

One option is "boost-phase intercept," when a missile has taken off and is still in the phase of accelerated, powered flight. But this approach is especially challenging, since the time period for intercepting the missile is typically between just 60 and 300 seconds, depending on the missile's range and propellant type. For instance, an ICBM with a liquid fuel rocket motor launched from central Iran to the U.S. East Coast would have about 250 seconds of boost-phase flight (out of a total flight time of approximately 40 min), whereas an ICBM solid fuel rocket motor launched from the same location would have about 180 seconds of boost-phase flight.

Another downside, as noted in the report published by the National Academy of Sciences: "Since boost-phase intercept is unlikely to destroy a nuclear warhead, the debris would not be just fragments of the attacking rocket but potentially an intact, armed nuclear weapon." (Ooops! Sorry for dropping that on you, Saudi Arabia)

At the opposite side of the spectrum is "terminal defense intercept," which strikes at a missile during its final approach, when it has reentered the atmosphere (at an altitude below 100 kilometers). But this approach also has downsides. For starters, the window for opportunity is limited (1-2 minutes). More significantly, since the interceptors would be launched at such a late phase, they would only be able to protect a relatively small area. So, covering large parts of the United States would require many more interceptors.

The third, most feasible option, "midcourse intercept," is the system we are trying to develop now. This takes place after the ICBM booster has burnt out, and the missile, which is outside the atmosphere, is following a ballistic trajectory under the sole influence of Earth's gravitational field. This is the longest phase of a missile's flight path, allowing for more time to identify and hit the target—or, in the event of a miss, correct for errors and launch additional interceptors. And, by striking relatively early, each interceptor can defend wider areas of territory. In theory, a few sites could safeguard the entire country.

But, there's that phrase again: "in theory." In practice, the GMD midcourse intercept system can't get the job done. The interceptors, as currently designed, each deploy a warhead called the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), which flies into space and strikes the target missile at velocities approaching 22,000 mph. The kinetic impact knocks out the incoming ICBM—a technique more commonly known as "hit-to-kill." (This is frequently likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet.) The EKV has failed during each of the three test flights conducted since 2010—which means the interceptors currently deployed in our silos might as well be renamed "sit-to-kill."

Hide-and-Seek

Even if the kill vehicle could be made to work, there still remains the challenge of locating the target.

Midcourse intercept in space allows for the best opportunity to hit an incoming ICBM. But, it is also the best opportunity for the ICBM to deploy decoys—even light, hollow ones—because, in space, all objects follow ballistic trajectories regardless of their mass. This countermeasure wouldn't be effective at lower altitudes, because, when falling to Earth, light objects slow down faster due to atmospheric drag, making it much easier to discriminate between a decoy and an actual warhead. In the vacuum of space, however, no such luck. The National Academy of Sciences report cites this as the "most formidable" obstacle for the GMD system to overcome.

The report expressed optimism that the missile defense program would, eventually, find ways to adapt to this challenge through the continual development of counter-countermeasures. Personally, I'm less confident. Reason one: The diversity of countermeasures—ranging from simple decoys to sophisticated electronic jamming systems—demands a level of adaptability that hasn't exactly been a strongpoint for the Missile Defense Agency. And, reason two: Several technologies that enable other countries to build countermeasures are not subject to international export controls.

This second point was addressed in a recently published Rand report, which identified 19 different types of countermeasures that could potentially benefit from tech openly available on the global market. It speaks volumes about the management of our missile defense program that nobody had thought to look into this potential problem until now.

The term du jour for these countermeasures is "penetration aids" or "penaids," for short. Rand describes them as technologies that can be incorporated into an offensive missile and used to "saturate, confuse, evade, or suppress" an attempted missile-defense interception.

A few samples of these technologies include:

Balloons: Objects that can be inflated in space—such as inflatable heat shields (photo below) for spacecraft—could also be adapted into inflatable decoys to confuse missile defense systems.

Here's Why the U.S. Missile Defense System Is Utterly Broken

Maneuvering Subsystems: Exoatmospheric maneuvering subsystems can be used for the flight control of peaceful spacecraft—or they could be added to warheads, allowing them to move and avoid interceptors.

Drop towers: A vacuum drop tower is used for the terrestrial testing of items, allowing them to experience zero gravity for several seconds. Such specialized facilities could also be used for the development and testing of penetration aids.

For missile defense to be effective, the U.S. will need to build upon existing international agreements to tighten export controls on multiple technologies. (And, that just includes legitimate trade.)

Yet, even lacking access to penaids, there are plenty of potential, low-tech ways to fool an interceptor. Two prominent critics of missile defense, Cornell University's George Lewis and MIT's Theodore Postal, have warned that an incoming missile could create decoys just by blowing apart pieces of itself:

By using simple explosive techniques to cut the one-stage rocket-target into multiple pieces, a potential adversary could substantially further increase the chances that a….. GMD interceptor would miss the warhead. Iran and North Korea successfully demonstrated this cutting technique when they separated the stages in the multistage rockets they have already flown. The same could be done to the upper stage of a multistage rocket to counter the homing of the GMD kill vehicle, creating the same confusion of objects to conceal the true location of the warhead from the GMD system.

Now What?

If there is anything resembling consensus on GMD at this point it's that the Missile Defense Agency needs to go back to the drawing board and develop a viable kill vehicle before it can even begin addressing the multiple other challenges. To the extent that the media covers this story, you'll hear a lot of partisan bickering over who is to blame for this failure. Ignore it. The biggest problem is not political, or perhaps even technological—it's institutional.

Here's Why the U.S. Missile Defense System Is Utterly Broken

Few people have said it better than Jeffrey Lewis—Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies—who recently wrote:

Of the many things MDA has been called, highly competent is not one of them. This is an organization that has recently seen its chief executive resign over accusations that he bullied staff; previously, he had to send a memo to his employees asking them to spend less time surfing for porn….

Part of the problem with MDA and its predecessors has been a de facto, then de jure, exemption from the normal rules of testing and procurement. In its history, MDA has transferred only a small number of systems to the services. In general, missile defense systems have been driven by missile defense enthusiasts, not the services.

What would happen if missile defense programs were returned to the services, and expected to compete against other priorities on basic grounds like "cost-effectiveness"?

It's a good question. But whether it's answered or not, Congress will likely still move ahead with its plans to build GMD silos on the East Coast. You'll pardon me if I don't feel any safer.