US Missile Defense Shifting Toward More Realistic Testing?
In light of a recent ballistic missile intercept by a Japanese destroyer, US Missile Defense Agency chief Lt. Gen. Henry (Trey) Obering is quoted by Aviation Week as saying it is time to incorporate more realism into the MDA’s testing process, now that basic intercepts have racked up a string of successes:
“What we have to do now is to turn our attention to make sure we can fully wring out the system in a variety of operational and realistic scenarios. And that is what we will be doing over the next couple of years.”
There are both technical and political dimensions to that course of action.
On a technical level, one generally begins with basic tests and adds challenges only as the systems prove out in easier testing. This is simply good basic engineering. Key technical challenges that remain untested to date includes testing against some of the simpler countermeasures one might expect a nation like North Korea, Iran et. al. to deploy. Or conducting tests at night, when the Sun’s light and heat can’t intensify a re-entry vehicle’s infrared signature in space.
In order to field a fully credible missile defense, the pace of technical testing does have to pick up.
There’s also a political backdrop, of course, which includes large sections of the US Democratic Party who are hostile to ballistic missile defense, and a Pentagon budgeting system that often re-prioritizes projects as other services and programs compete for funds. Ballistic missile defense funding has been a target of cuts in recent defense budgets, and those calls were being strengthened by the number of early test failures in several key systems.
The MDA’s decision to keep testing simple, and build a string of successes, must also be seen in that dimension. So, too, must its decisions concerning future testing. These decisions also have a geopolitical dimension, of course.
Aviation Week’s article adds:
“[Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's former chief tester and now a senior adviser at the left-wing Center for Defense Information] criticizes the decision to begin using missile defense funds to field operational units. He says that a rush in 2001 to declare the system operational distracted from the earlier focus of demonstrating its capabilities with rigorous and operationally relevant tests. By 2013, MDA plans to have nearly 1,000 new interceptors, including those for the Ground-Based Defense system, Aegis sea-based defense system and Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense [THAAD] system.
“I don’t understand why you would put so much money into hardware when hardware has these limitations,” Coyle says. “These numbers [of interceptors] are astonishing to me when these systems seem to have Achilles’ heels.”
Coyle was a weapons tester, and he speaks from a tester’s perspective. Yet deployment decisions of this kind occur on geopolitical terms. In a world where all intelligence is uncertain and unpleasant surprises must be expected, even a potentially flawed system can have significant deterrence and dissuasion value, because it generates large uncertainties for opponents. Larger numbers, meanwhile, can begin to offset a less capable system’s weaknesses unless those weaknesses are absolute (i.e. 100%) in key areas. This is especially true if the target is a rogue state with few nuclear weapons, whose potential threats may be rendered effectively useless by even the possibility of a successful defense.
This was acknowledged to some degree in the Aviation Week article, though it did not delve into the importance of certainty of catastrophic damage as a critical component of a rogue state’s own ability to make threats, and to create a nuclear shield around their other activities, however provocative.
Also left out was the fact that such systems can also be effective if the target of the systems is an ally under threat, whose diplomacy and future cooperation levels will be affected by perceptions of progress and willingness to create defenses.
Which is why those kinds of decisions, be they right or wrong, tend to be above a testing officer’s pay grade.