National Missile Defense—More Isn’t Always Better

February 20, 2014 | 6:00 am
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

Recently, the Pentagon announced that four of five sites that had been identified as candidates for a possible new missile defense site would be moving on to the next step and getting Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)– Camp Ravenna, Ohio; Fort Custer, Michigan;  Fort Drum, New York; and  Portsmouth SERE Training Area, near Rangeley, Maine. 

Only the site in Vermont was dropped. While there was no reason given, Vermont’s senators and governor were strongly and vocally opposed to the idea of putting a missile defense site there and that may have made a difference.

The EIS process will take two years to complete. The Pentagon has said that during that period “public involvement is encouraged” in the EIS process, including in meetings, solicitation of written comments, and review of the statements.

A new site is not at the top of the wishlist for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) nor even for missile defense advocacy organizations.

What Does the MDA Want Most? 

Not a new site. At a May 8, 2013 House Armed Services Committee Hearing, in response to a question about where he would spend money if he had complete authority to reprogram funding, MDA director Adm. Syring said “My number one priority, sir, would be to focus on the discrimination capability of our system,” that is, its ability to tell warheads from decoys. And in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee in July 2013, Syring spoke to the struggles his agency was having to get the interceptors (GBI) of the Ground Based Midcourse missile defense system (GMD) to work, and stated that “In light of the last three GMD failures, I recognize that quality and reliability in our GBIs must be our top concern.

If the technology doesn’t work, the defense is no more than a scarecrow. Building more scarecrows isn’t the fix.

If the technology doesn’t work, the defense is no more than a scarecrow. Building more scarecrows isn’t the fix.

The February 4, 2014 press release from the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a non-partisan missile defense advocacy group, states “The redesign of the EKV [exoatmospheric kill vehicle], the fixes on the current GBIs, the additional 14 interceptors and the discriminating radar have to be the top priorities over forward-basing GBIs in the Eastern United States. All are needed, but the former rather than the latter increases the reliability and confidence of our current missile defense system more efficiently than extending the battle space and time that an additional forward site in the U.S. would provide.”

While the National Academies’ 2012 report on missile defense is often cited as endorsing the idea of a third site, the recommendation in that report was instead for an essentially entirely new ground-based missile defense system, with new radars, interceptors, and an additional site—not adding a site to the current system.

Who’s left to push for the sites?  Congressional delegations of the candidate sites, perhaps, who want to bring jobs and prosperity to their constituents.  However, a new site is unlikely to produce a bounty of good jobs, and military spending is a notoriously poor job creator, especially as compared to other kinds of spending. A billion dollars invested in clean energy, health care, or education create substantially more jobs than does a billion dollars spent on the military, according to the Political Economy Research Institute.

Sending MDA Back to the Drawing Board?

The site selection comes on the heels of the Director of Operational Testing & Evaluation’s annual report on missile defense, which recommends that the Missile Defense Agency consider going back to the drawing board on the GMD’s kill vehicle, the part of the interceptor that destroys the enemy warhead, and starting over with a “rigorous” engineering process.

Ten of the thirty kill vehicles currently on the GMD interceptors are the newer CE-II type, although those are not considered operational. The CE-II failed both of its intercept attempts; the intercept test scheduled for March 2014 has been postponed to the summer. The interceptors with the older version of the kill vehicle, the CE-I, are considered operational, although they are meant to eventually be replaced by the CE-II because some of the CE-Is constituent parts are obsolete. The CE-I-equipped interceptor failed its most recent intercept test, as well, in July 2013.

It is foolish to expand the GMD system when the basic pieces don’t yet work.  More will not equal better.  Of course fixing the problems with the kill vehicle does not solve the fundamental problems with national missile defense. The system available now and in foreseeable future can at best only counter a rudimentary missile threat, one that is not accompanied by decoys and other countermeasures.

Really, no wonder the GMD is in such a state.  The Bush administration found it so important to get something in the ground that it exempted missile defense from rigorous oversight that might slow it down, and then Congress does its own project planning by adding in unasked-for money to fund its own ideas.

Photo credit: FG2 from Wikimedia Commons