Does the Pentagon Now Doubt the Missile Defence System it wanted Canada to endorse?

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2005 Volume 26 Issue 4

Canada’s decision to forgo direct involvement in the US ballistic missile defence system (BMD) could yet be vindicated by the Pentagon itself. This country’s flirtation with BMD brought us close to direct participation in the ground-based, midcourse defence (GMD) interceptor system intended to defend North America against intercontinental ballistic missile attack, but now there are indications that the Pentagon itself has doubts about the viability and future of the system.

The US Senate Defense Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, led by Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who wants the GMD system fully deployed and upgraded, has issued a report warning BMD supporters that the Pentagon appears to have abandoned efforts to try to upgrade the system. The report charges that the first generation of interceptor missiles, which have yet to be fully tested or declared operational, will also be the last and that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has decided to focus its future development efforts on other more promising technologies (Ruppe 2005b).

Nine interceptor missiles have been put in place to date – seven in Alaska and two in California. Once operational, and in the event of an attack, they are to work in sync with a set of ground-based radars to deliver a non-explosive interceptor warhead, which the Pentagon calls a “Kill Vehicle,” into space and the path of the attacking nuclear warhead. After being released into space, the interceptor “Kill Vehicle” is designed to carry out final maneuvers to position itself in the path of an oncoming warhead so that the collision takes place and destroys the attacking nuclear warhead during the midcourse phase of its flight in outer space. The MDA admits that all three elements of the system – the radar that tracks the incoming warhead, the Alaska- and California-based missiles that boost the Kill Vehicles into space, and the Kill Vehicles that are to collide with the incoming warhead – are still immature technologies and face daunting challenges.

As a result the MDA’s assessment of the system’s effectiveness has been in steep decline. In 2003 the Undersecretary of Defense (for acquisition technology and logistics) declared its effectiveness to be “in the 90 percent range.” Two years later, in July 2005, the head of the Missile Defense Agency, Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, could claim only that there is a “better than zero chance of successfully intercepting, I believe, an inbound warhead” (Samson 2005).

The plan, at least until now, has been to deploy an admittedly flawed system but to then subject it to continuous testing and upgrading through what the Pentagon calls its “spiral development” approach. As reported by David Ruppe (2005b) of Global Security Newswire, a close follower of BMD developments, the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee now says that the “MDA at best plans only marginal improvements to the capability of the GMD … program’s ground-based interceptor,” and that the Pentagon has confirmed that the MDA will also “not pursue major booster or kill vehicle upgrades” for the interceptors.

According to Philip Coyle, a senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, “it appears the agency has come to recognize the limitations of this system and what [the Appropriations Committee is] trying to say is that they don’t want them to.” The system’s “proponents are concerned about this and they’re trying to get MDA’s attention” (Ruppe 2005b). University of Maryland arms control analyst Jeffrey Lewis notes that “the midcourse defense system was not activated last year despite a December deadline. ‘MDA simply realizes that they cannot deliver a [ground-based interceptor] system that works, or at least, that anyone [in the military services] wants,’ he said” (Ruppe 2005b).

No one is saying that the MDA will abruptly pull the plug on GMD, but the betting is that it will be allowed to atrophy. Only five of 10 tests to date have been successful, and even the flight tests that were successful were held in highly scripted and artificial conditions in which the interceptors were fed advance data on the characteristics and path of their targets. Stephen Young (2005) of the Union of Concerned Scientists reports that the conclusions of a 2005 Independent Review of GMD “echoed numerous other reviews in recent years” in concluding that the testing of the system has been minimal and that the results have produced no evidence that the system will work. Young says that the review further confirms the belief that “[d]ecisions to push ahead with antimissile systems were too often based on external, political timetables rather than test results. The Independent Review Team called for a new approach that ‘makes test and mission success the primary objective’ and that is ‘event-driven rather than schedule-driven.’”

A key problem is that the system cannot differentiate between the decoys and chaff that an attacker is likely to deploy along with the warhead, and the actual warhead to be intercepted. In other words, the attacker will present not a single target, but a cluster of them, making it a challenge to find the real target. Hence, a solution now being pursued is to aim a cluster of interceptors at the path of an oncoming “threat cluster.” The idea is to load up each ground-based interceptor missile with multiple small and independently guided interceptor kill vehicles (MKV). Once in space and released from the booster rocket each kill vehicle has the task of seeking out a specific target in the threat cluster.

Critics point to two flaws in this strategy.

First, the MKV would face all the challenges of the individual kill vehicle since an adversary will adjust the design of an attack to counter the technical developments of the interceptor. And the attacker will always have the upper hand in that technology race since the attacker faces the relatively simple task of just packing more items, more decoys and chaff, into the nose of the attacking missile. The decoys do not require any particular technology themselves, and are just debris that is difficult for radars and other sensors to distinguish from other objects. In fact, a briefing by the Washington-based Center for Defense Information (Levine 2005) suggests that the likeliest development would be that an MKV program would “effectively become locked in an arms race with itself.” Because countermeasures are relatively simple and potentially evolving, the MKV program managers would have to assume constant developments in decoy and other countermeasures and thus would always be pressured to respond to theoretical advances by an unknown adversary. As Levine (2005) says, “no technological stalemate or détente can lock in the status quo when the adversary is a hypothetical one.”

Secondly, there is the danger that MKV technology is also useable as a kinetic energy anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) in disguise (Levine 2005). While it is a daunting challenge for each of the multiple kill vehicles to find a separate target within the approaching “threat cluster” to home in on and destroy, it is a much more feasible objective for a small maneuverable space craft, which is what each MKV would be, to identify a satellite with a known orbital path, steer itself into its path, and thus collide with it. The MDA vigorously denies that its MKV is a nascent ASAT system, but the technology characteristics are harder to deny.

Midcourse interception remains a daunting proposition and the possibility that the Pentagon doubts its feasibility may be further evidenced by the fact that the deployment of midcourse interceptors is well behind schedule. Only one of 10 new interceptors promised for 2005 has been installed. Philip Coyle told the Associated Press (2005) that the failure to add new interceptors in the summer of 2005 “could reflect a decision by the missile agency to back away from the system.”

One group of GMD advocates is not letting up: the politicians in whose states the system is built and deployed. A new Report by the World Policy Institute of Washington, a think-tank highly critical of BMD, outlines the multi-billion dollar pork barrel of BMD contracting and the generous contributions by BMD contractors to the election campaigns of key members of Congress. The overall BMD budget has doubled during the Bush Administration (to 2006 estimates of US$8.8-billion), and top missile defence contractors have contributed over $4-million to 30 key members of Congress during the same period (Hartung et al. 2005).

The ground-based midcourse ballistic missile interception system that Canada was poised to endorse and support less than a year ago seems at least to be meeting the expectations of its critics. Its feasibility is increasingly in doubt; the Pentagon’s enthusiasm for it is in apparent decline; and it owes its continued life not to its promise of security from nuclear attack, but its promise of financial security to its builders and their political advocates. Had Canada said yes to BMD it would have now been stuck defending a system that is increasingly exposed as one that is unable to deliver on its promises and that survives largely due to pork barreling.



Associated Press 2005, “Missile defense priorities criticized by Senate panel,” Anchorage Daily News, October 19.

Hartung, W.D., Berrigan, F., Ciarrocca, M. & Wingo, J. 2005, Tangled Web 2005: A Profile of the Missile Defense and Space Weapons Lobbies, A World Policy Institute Special Report, November.

Levine, H. 2005, “Safety in Numbers?” Center for Defense Information, October 18.

Ruppe, D. 2005a, “Missile Defense Capabilities Could Improve Next Year,” Global Security Newswire, October 4.

Ruppe, D. 2005b, “White House May Reconsider Missile Defense Approach,” Global Security Newswire, October 7.

Samson, V. 2005, “When do we say when?” Center for Defense Information, August 12.

Young, S. 2005, “Living in Limbo,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 25.

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