We May Not Be Able to Stop a North Korean Missile
When the collision with the mock intercontinental ballistic missile occurred on Tuesday afternoon, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency was filled with excitement and relief. The first full intercept test in three years of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system was deemed a success. Some proponents of the program have presented the test as proof that the $40 billion system is capable of defending the United States against long-range missiles that could, in the future, be launched by a rogue nation like North Korea.
The larger context, however, tells a very different story. Of the 10 tests of the system since 2004, when the Bush administration prematurely declared it operational, six have failed to destroy the target, including three of the last five tries.
More revealing than the test record are the actual tests themselves. Each is highly scripted to maximize success. The timing and other details are provided in advance, information that no real enemy would provide. The weather and time of day are just right for an intercept. An adversary would use complex countermeasures, such as decoys, alongside the real missile to try to fool the defense system, but only simplistic versions of this trick have been included. Under realistic testing conditions, the program’s success rate would almost certainly be lower.
As a member of Congress, I held leadership positions on the subcommittee that oversaw the missile defense program. During hearings, Pentagon officials repeatedly overstated confidence in the program, understated technical limitations and dismissed concerns from physicists and other experts.
This false sense of security persists today. Multiple senior military officials have recently suggested that a North Korean missile could be shot down with our existing capabilities. One prominent example came from Gen. Lori J. Robinson, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, who told a Senate committee that she is “extremely confident of our capability to defend the United States of America and be able to intercept an ICBM should it reach our homeland.” But with so many test failures in highly scripted environments, how could anyone be confident?
I am not alone in my skepticism. The Pentagon’s chief weapons evaluator said in a report that the program has “a limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland,” and the Government Accountability Office reported last year that the tests have been “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”
Outside of government, both the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and the Union of Concerned Scientists have criticized the program and suggested major changes, with the academies calling for a redesigned set of interceptors and sensors, and the union calling for the system to be subject to the demanding oversight that virtually all other Pentagon programs already face.
Nonetheless, some lawmakers are determined to expand the program without reforming it. Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, has proposed adding many interceptors, for a total of up to 100 in his state alone. (Forty-four interceptors will already be installed by the end of the year, mostly in Alaska.) The increase may benefit the Alaskan economy, but it will damage the rest of the country. Every dollar spent on enlarging the missile defense program is a dollar not spent on other critical defense and national priorities.
If lawmakers are serious about defending the homeland from rogue states like North Korea, they should prioritize diplomatic action. Even if the system was 100 percent effective (a herculean prospect) and North Korea was intent on striking the United States preemptively (a dubious assessment), Pyongyang could overwhelm our system by building more missiles than we have interceptors, a more cost-effective and simpler task. The offense has the advantage in this type of arms race, a reality that some lawmakers seem to ignore.
There is an adage in defense acquisition: Fly before you buy. In other words, validate the system’s usefulness before purchasing and deploying it. For nearly 15 years, the Pentagon has ignored this rule with regard to homeland missile defense. Congress can fix past mistakes by fully exercising its oversight authority and demanding a more prudent approach. Expanding the program before it is proved to be effective under realistic conditions would mark the height of irresponsibility.
The Missile Defense Agency might be celebrating now, but the latest test is at best a small step forward on a very long journey.