Shortly after 11 a.m. local time, a U.S. ballistic missile target loaded with a mock nuclear warhead blasted off from Narrow Cape, a low-lying coastal area of Alaska’s Kodiak Island. A network of radars from Alaska to California tracked the target, watching for the release of metal chaff, Mylar or aluminum balloons, or other objects like those that North Korean missiles might use to fool U.S. defenses.
This simulated attack on the United States on Dec. 5, 2008 was the first time massive sea- and ground-based defenses would try to penetrate the decoys or countermeasures that might be used to hide a warhead in the near-vacuum of space. As the Pentagon had wanted, a rocket interceptor launched from a silo at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base destroyed the warhead and the radar network performed well, prompting officials to declare the test a success in a press release the same day.
But the real test of U.S. defenses against the countermeasures that North Korean missiles might eventually carry — the primary objective of that exercise, which was estimated to cost taxpayers between $200 million and $300 million — never happened. The target malfunctioned and failed to release them.
For years, the public’s focus on the nation’s nearly $10 billion-a-year missile defense program has been on whether American interceptors can hit incoming ballistic missiles and protect the country and its allies, a feat often likened to hitting a speeding bullet with a bullet. More than $90 billion has been spent since 2002 to develop the means to target incoming threats and intercept them, but without much demonstrated success.
Less attention has been paid to the targets used in U.S. missile defense testing, which have failed or malfunctioned at an alarming rate since the 2002 inception of the Missile Defense Agency, which oversees all the development, procurement and testing programs. In the last five years, target problems occurred in two of the last three intercept tests of ground-based interceptors — such as those already deployed to Alaska and California — and in two of the last seven tests of the Army’s mobile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptors.
An investigation by the independent Government Accountability Office in 2008 found that 7 percent of the targets launched from 2002-2005 also had problems, a rate that more than doubled to 16 percent from 2006-2007.
Target problems have driven up costs, with GAO estimating the cost of the most recent ground-based interceptor tests at $230 million apiece. In total, the Pentagon is now spending roughly a half-billion dollars a year on targets, and another half-billion a year on testing.
And they have caused significant disruptions to testing schedules, often pushing back critical intercept tests by a year or more. The December 2008 test to see if missile defenses could distinguish between decoys and a warhead has yet to be repeated, undermining claims by both military and elected officials that U.S. missile defenses are capable and effective in protecting the homeland or U.S. troops overseas from a future missile attack by North Korea or Iran.
Those countries will be able to field threatening missiles during the next decade, the National Academy of Sciences told Congress in a report last September, adding that “at some point, countermeasures of various kinds should be expected.” Defense officials should expect any weaknesses to be exploited, observed Tom Collina, an analyst with the Arms Control Association. "In a real missile attack North Korea could be expected to use decoys and countermeasures that US defenses would not be able to handle,” he predicted.
Risky Test Set for Later This Year
The risk of another major development setback looms this fall when the military plans its first test of the missile defense system intended for Europe. In one of the most complex such experiments the Pentagon has ever attempted, two different interceptor systems will be used to try to defeat a near-simultaneous attack by two air-launched extended medium-range ballistic missiles. Originally meant to involve three different interceptor systems in a raid by up to five missile threats, the test was scaled back due to budget sequestration cuts, two congressional sources said. Unofficial estimates put the cost of the original test at more than $500 million.
A team of GAO investigators that has long pressed for reform in the MDA’s targets program recently issued a warning about the Pentagon’s plan to to use a new class of air-launched target missiles in this complex test without separately flight testing one of them first. “Using these new targets puts this major test at risk of not being able to obtain key information should the targets not perform as expected,” Cristina Chaplain, GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a May 9 hearing.
The manufacturer of these new targets, Lockheed Martin, disagrees. Noting that on May 13 it had successfully dropped a prototype out the cargo bay of a C-17 transport plane, it says the target missile is ready for the big test later this year. But the version that was dropped lacked an engine, so the test did not satisfy the GAO.
Richard Lehner, the Missile Defense Agency spokesman, said the agency’s scrutiny of key target components and its “proven quality control processes” give officials “the confidence necessary … to plan for and launch targets for the first time as part of a system-level flight test.” Lehner also reiterated the Pentagon’s official response to the GAO that any decision to perform a flight test of the new targets “must be balanced against cost, schedule, and programmatic impacts.”
Chaplain and her colleagues, including her assistant for missile defense, David Best, and her boss, Paul Francis, have been using their audits and congressional testimony to try to get MDA to resolve the target problems and stop relying on high-risk strategies in which major purchases of targets, interceptors and other hardware are made before all the design and engineering bugs have been worked out.
“Since its inception, MDA has been operating in an environment of tight time frames for delivering capabilities — first with a presidential directive in 2002 and then with a presidential announcement in 2009 on U.S. missile defenses in Europe,” Chaplain told the senators. Budget constraints “have already necessitated tough trade-off decisions and will require additional steps to reduce acquisition risk,” she added.
Besides the continuing pressure to meet development and deployment deadlines, there have been instances of poor execution by contractors, she and her colleagues say, as well as difficulties building an inventory of targets that do not have aged components, such as rocket motors from surplus Trident or Polaris submarine missiles.