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Separating myth from truth is critically important when the topic is as contentious as strategic missile defense. In a recent report, we sought to establish the basic facts about the US Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, nearly 15 years and $40 billion after its inception. Our work was based substantially on the findings of official U.S. government sources, including the Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon’s own testing oversight office. We found the system is in worse shape than most people realize, and that the problems it has are a predictable consequence of the lack of accountability and oversight that has undermined its development. 

Missile defense advocates often paint a rosier picture of the GMD system, offering statements from government officials endorsing its effectiveness. Too often, those statements do not appear to be grounded in fact. 

How did this happen? In 2002, the George W. Bush administration set an ambitious goal of quickly fielding a rudimentary missile defense by 2004. To do so, it exempted missile defense from the normal “fly before you buy” processes required of other major military systems. Unfortunately, rather than fielding a working system quickly, this course instead led to an expensive and poorly performing GMD system. Attempts by the Obama administration to establish better practices have not been sufficient. If it is ever to succeed, bringing strategic missile defense back under rigorous oversight is critically important. 

Both missile defense proponents and critics should welcome and support such a dedication to rigor. Proponents should support it as a necessary, although not sufficient, step to develop working technology. Critics should welcome it as a process that keeps untested equipment out of the field and provides credible information about missile defense’s capabilities and potential, which is essential to any debate about the value of the system. 

A well-functioning oversight system also provides a reality check on the myths that accumulate around a politically-charged effort such as the GMD system. Here, we take a look at a few of these.

Has the GMD system been shown to work? No. 

Our report, “Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous US Approach to Strategic Missile Defense” provides the testing data to show that despite enormous effort and expense, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system has not demonstrated a reliable defense of the United States. 

Nevertheless, despite little evidence to support such statements, US officials have repeatedly sought to reassure the public and international allies about the effectiveness of the GMD system. We collected numerous  such misleadingly optimistic quotes in our report. But one can’t wish a working missile defense into existence. 

Under normal Pentagon oversight, a major military system can be fielded only after having undergone testing that demonstrates it works as intended under real-world conditions. While missile defense is exempt from this requirement (more on that shortly), the Office of the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) has assessed whether missile defense capabilities has been demonstrated. 

The most recent report says that previous assessments indicating the GMD system “demonstrates a limited capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from small numbers” of missiles from North Korea or Iran remain unchanged. These previous assessments include an in-depth report on missile defense from the year before, in which the DOT&E calls the capability “partial” and notes that “The reliability and availability of the operational Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) are low, and the [Missile Defense Agency] continues to discover new failure modes during testing.”

But most importantly, the Pentagon’s chief testing official’s assessment is that the tests to date are “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.” This assessment is based on evidence, not wishful thinking. The GMD system has destroyed its target fewer than half the 17 times it has been tested, and the record is not improving over time. Since the 2004 deployment decision, the system has a three-for-nine record (see the table below.)

Are the tests scripted? Yes. And they still fail.

At least as important as the failing test record is that these tests were not conducted under operational conditions, which are certain to be challenging.

Instead, in each test, the missile defenders had significant information about the time and place of the target’s launch, and how the target and any other objects would look. The conditions have varied little and are optimized for success. For example, the tests are set up so that the target is lit by the sun and seen against the dark background of space. 

The DOT&E laid out its criteria for operational realism in testing in its 2014 report. The GMD tests have met few of them. For example, none of the GMD tests since 2010 have included threat representative targets or complex countermeasures. That the system has not been tested successfully under these conditions is why the DOT&E report concluded that the GMD has not demonstrated operationally relevant capability. 

While demonstrating the ability to “hit a bullet with a bullet” is necessary step, and indeed a remarkable technical achievement, that is not the task at hand. An able adversary will try to make the situation as complex for the defense as possible. The task is instead to hit that bullet when it doesn’t look like you expected, when it is accompanied by many fake bullets, and under stressful and confusing conditions. This is what rigorous operational testing would demonstrate. Yet even without being subjected to these challenging conditions, the GMD system has failed more than half the time.

Is oversight insufficient? This is still a critical problem.

Under standard Pentagon oversight, a major military system may not be deployed without having undergone operationally realistic testing. Ballistic missile defense, however, is the only major military program not subject to those protocols. This has had real and lasting consequences, which we document in depth in our report. For example, this exemption allowed the Pentagon to field what were essentially untested prototypes. Using the Pentagon’s own data, we show that nearly all GMD interceptors were fielded before having undergone even a single successful intercept test. See the figure below.

Removing ballistic missile defense from normal oversight did not lead to the quick deployment of a modestly useful system; it has led to one that is costly, behind schedule, and works poorly. 

The GMD system currently includes 30 fielded interceptors, with 14 more to be added in the coming year. The majority use a type of kill vehicle (CE-I) that has had only two successful intercept tests in four tries. The most recent intercept test with it failed; the last successful one was in 2008. Other interceptors are equipped with the CE-II kill vehicle, which has had only a single successful intercept test in three tries. Tracking down and fixing the problems with the CE-II kill vehicle identified by test failures has taken several years and $2 billion. 

Rushing minimally-tested hardware into the field may give the appearance of a defense, but it does not reliably protect US cities.

Improvements to the missile defense acquisition process at the end of the Bush administration and by the Obama administration do not provide the rigor of established processes and are insufficient to prevent the recurrence of these problems. The Pentagon continues to field interceptors—in some cases with known flaws—based on imposed deadlines rather than technical maturity. Tests are conducted under heavily controlled conditions and do not rigorously evaluate the system. Poorly vetted projects are started only to be canceled later, wasting time and money. Congress exploits this lack of accountability by adding into the strategic missile defense portfolio projects that are unasked-for, such as a third continental interceptor site, or that have been repeatedly shown to be dead-ends, such as space-based interceptors. 

The current setup provides no clear path for the GMD system to become an operational program paid for by the military services. So, more than a decade after it was initially fielded, the system languishes as a program that is largely treated as if it is operational but has not yet demonstrated an operationally useful capability.

Most dangerous myth of all? Believing it works when it doesn’t.

Deploying a strategic missile defense actually creates risks, particularly if that defense is developed without sufficient oversight and its capabilities are overestimated. These risks can outweigh the potential benefits. 

For example, political and military leaders believing the GMD system works better than it does may lead to pursuit of more aggressive policies in a crisis. This may increase the risk of nuclear exchange. And an overoptimistic view of the capabilities of strategic missile defense could diminish the incentive to vigorously pursue other, potentially more effective, approaches to the thorny problem of ballistic missiles.

Also, US development of a national missile defense system can influence Chinese and Russian decisions in ways that reduce US security. For example, while Chinese analysts are understandably skeptical of the capabilities of the GMD system, they remain concerned that US investments in missile defense, as well as US cooperation on missile defense with countries on China’s periphery, could pose a potential long-term challenge to China’s own security. 

This may create pressure for China to take steps to improve its retaliatory ability, for example, by increasing the size of its arsenal and putting its missiles on alert status. Indeed, China’s decision to put multiple warheads on its missiles, which the Pentagon sees partly as a reaction to US missile defenses, actually increases the number of nuclear warheads aimed at the United States. 

A strategic missile defense system that increases the number of warheads aimed at the United States and increases the risk of an attack—while at the same time not providing an effective defense against such an attack—makes us less safe.

Congress, the administration, and the American people should evaluate with clear eyes what role the GMD system can play and at what cost, especially under the constrained budget environment that is expected for the foreseeable future. Accurate information is crucial for assessing the appropriate priority for strategic missile defense compared to other technological and diplomatic approaches to mitigating the ballistic missile threat, as well as the other needs of the nation. 

In conclusion...

Laura Grego, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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