Key U.S. Brass: Any Failure in Next Missile Defense Test Won’t Sink Effort

Spectators gather in December 2010 near Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to watch an ultimately unsuccessful test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system's ability to intercept a ballistic missile target. Another intercept test of the system is planned for June.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
May 30, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

A seni­or U.S. of­ficer says if an up­com­ing mis­sile-in­ter­cept test res­ults in a re­peat fail­ure, it still would not likely spell doom for the pro­gram.

Adm. James Win­nefeld, vice chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his own best guess is that the planned June test of the Ground-based Mid­course De­fense sys­tem will be suc­cess­ful. Were the test deemed a fail­ure, “I don’t think it’ll be a shot in the head [to the pro­gram], but it de­pends on the fail­ure mode if it were to fail,” he said.

The Ground-based Mid­course De­fense sys­tem is the coun­try’s prin­cip­al de­fense against a lim­ited stra­tegic bal­list­ic mis­sile at­tack. However, the sys­tem has not had a suc­cess­ful in­ter­cept test, des­pite re­peated at­tempts, since 2008. After con­duct­ing an ex­tens­ive tech­nic­al ana­lys­is in­to the reas­ons be­hind the re­cent test fail­ures, the Pentagon’s Mis­sile De­fense Agency is plan­ning to put the tech­no­logy through an­oth­er in­ter­cept tri­al in June.

“If it is a suc­cess, can­didly, it will be a very good shot in the arm for the pro­gram, and we will re­sume pro­duc­tion on 14 more in-pro­gress mis­siles,” said Win­nefeld dur­ing a Wed­nes­day con­fer­ence hos­ted by the At­lantic Coun­cil in Wash­ing­ton. He was re­fer­ring to ad­di­tion­al Ground Based In­ter­cept­ors the Pentagon has ordered placed in Alaska by the end of fisc­al 2017 as a coun­ter­meas­ure against the threat of North Korea’s nuc­le­ar mis­sile pro­gram.

“I per­son­ally don’t think it’s go­ing to fail, and I per­son­ally think that any fail­ure that does oc­cur, we will get through just as we have in the past,” the vice chair­man said.

The test will in­volve a Ground Based In­ter­cept­or launched from Vanden­berg Air Force Base, Cal­if., and a “tar­get mis­sile” fired from Kwa­jalein Atoll in the Mar­shall Is­lands, ac­cord­ing to MDA spokes­man Rick Lehner. A second-gen­er­a­tion kill vehicle, the so-called “CE-2” mod­el, will be used in the test. No test date will be provided un­til five to sev­en days pri­or to the planned tri­al, the spokes­man told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

The CE-2 vehicle had a suc­cess­ful non-in­ter­cept flight test in early 2013.

“The last CE-2 that we fired, ad­mit­tedly not against a tar­get, but put­ting it through its paces “¦ was very suc­cess­ful, and I be­lieve it would have hit a tar­get if it was go­ing against one that day,” Win­nefeld said.

The Ground-Based Mid­course De­fense sys­tem cur­rently com­prises 30 GBI mis­siles de­ployed in two states — Cali­for­nia and Alaska — and a sup­port­ing net­work of sensors that gath­er and re­lay in­form­a­tion about pos­sible stra­tegic bal­list­ic mis­sile threats. Frus­trated with the sys­tem’s re­cent test fail­ings, a key Sen­ate de­fense pan­el moved last week to for­bid the Pentagon from pur­chas­ing any more an­ti­mis­sile units whose tech­no­logy has not been proven through test­ing.

Win­nefeld in his re­marks pushed back against “the nar­rat­ive that mis­sile de­fense needs to be 100 per­cent ef­fect­ive to be suc­cess­ful, es­pe­cially when nuc­le­ar weapons are in­volved,” which he called “a simplist­ic ar­gu­ment.”

Crit­ics of U.S. mis­sile de­fense activ­it­ies point out that the num­ber of nuc­le­ar-armed mis­siles that could strike the United States and its al­lies vastly out­num­bers the num­ber of in­ter­cept­ors avail­able to be launched against them. Skep­tics also note that U.S. an­ti­mis­sile sys­tems have an im­per­fect test­ing track re­cord.

“No sys­tem can achieve per­fec­tion,” Win­nefeld said. “It would be hubris to be­lieve oth­er­wise.”

He noted that de­terrence against nuc­le­ar strikes in­volves a com­bin­a­tion of mis­sile de­fenses — al­beit an im­per­fect sys­tem that might un­wit­tingly let some weapons sneak through — and the threat of massive re­tali­ation.

U.S. mis­sile de­fenses are aimed at in­ject­ing “con­sid­er­able doubt” in­to the minds of op­pon­ents about the abil­ity of their nuc­le­ar weapons to achieve a strike, he said. Ad­di­tion­ally, with the threat of Wash­ing­ton’s nuc­le­ar or con­ven­tion­al re­sponse, “the en­emy knows there will be a sig­ni­fic­ant price to pay with a mis­sile launch against the United States,” Win­nefeld said.

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