Interceptor Test Failures and a Flawed Approach to Testing Missile Defense

A test of the advanced SM-3 Block IB interceptor, set to be deployed as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach in 2015 ended in yet another failure for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).  This comes on the heels of last December’s failure of a ground-based interceptor, as well as a previous one in January of last year, and does not bode well for the tight schedule promised by the Obama administration’s planned Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense in Europe—where more advanced versions of the SM-3, namely the Block IIA and IIB, are set to be deployed in 2018 and 2020 respectively.  The short timeframe and continued test failures might force the Obama administration to renege on promises made in the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review for a rigorous testing program and deployment of only proven technology.

On its face, the SM-3 has a fairly good record having successfully intercepted 22 of the 27 test missiles, according to the MDA—and particularly in comparison to ground-based interceptors that have failed 7 out of 15 flight tests since 1999.  Despite the MDA’s claims, the SM-3 test results have also been called into question by physicists Ted Postol of MIT and George Lewis of Cornell University.  The two allege that the MDA considered tests successful that should have been deemed failures since the interceptor engaged the body of the target missile itself—a situation that would leave the warhead intact and able to either carry on toward its target or cause it to shortfall over areas potentially populated by American or allied civilians.  The MDA immediately pushed back against these accusations, claiming the tests accomplished the goals that were set forth and that destruction of the warhead was not necessarily the objective in individual tests.  The MDA also claimed Postol and Lewis were not privy to all the test data available and that their criticisms were invalid.

Postol has been a critic of American missile defense efforts for many years—gaining considerable notoriety for challenging the success of the Patriot missile during Operation Desert Storm—but he is so vehemently opposed to missile defense deployment of any kind that even a completely accurate critique can fall on deaf ears.  This is unfortunate because, while there may be some gray area on the actual test results themselves, Postol and Lewis make an excellent critique about the unrealistic nature of interceptor test conditions.  MDA testing conditions usually provide the interceptor with a single test missile to engage, close to ideal weather conditions, no countermeasures, and knowledge of when and from where the test missile will be launched.  In an actual ballistic missile attack it is possible the weather will be nice, but any other advantages are wholly unlikely.  Testing in a controlled environment lessens the value of even successful tests because it doesn’t accurately reflect how a weapon would perform when called into action.

There are only a limited number of scenarios under which a single ballistic missile launch would take place in a “bolt-from-the-blue” attack, but a realistic first strike against American forces abroad—or even the continental United States—would likely employ multiple ballistic missiles and, depending on the size and nature of the attack, would likely include missiles of varying ranges.  Even unsophisticated ballistic missiles are likely to employ countermeasures of some type.  The MDA claims that new radars and internal sensors in the advanced SM-3 models will be able to better distinguish between decoys and chaff to enable faster acquisition of the actual warhead, but it has shown little evidence of this assertion through its testing program. 

Missile defense is a controversial issue, and the MDA does itself no favors by testing defense systems under ideal conditions when an actual attack is unlikely to offer the defender such advantages.  A more realistic testing program might lead to more failures, but it would also force an accurate assessment of what current technologies are capable of achieving and therefore aid in determining how and on what schedule deployment will take shape.

Demands for more rigorous testing are certainly laudable, but perfection before deployment is likely impossible—to strive for perfect in missile defense testing would be the enemy of achieving good.  It is unlikely a missile interceptor will ever be developed that can achieve a one hundred percent success rate under any circumstances, but deploying an effective missile defense system means having an accurate idea of what it can accomplish under less-than-ideal conditions.  The Obama administration’s Ballistic Missile Defense Review promised it would “fly” before it would “buy”—i.e. perform rigorous tests before deploying—any missile defense systems.  At the same time, it has promised to deploy systems in a narrow timeframe that have offered dubious results under less-than-realistic conditions—and for reasons of little strategic importance to the United States.

This recent testing failure may lead to positive developments if it can offer ways to overcome technical shortcomings in future interceptors.  But it also shows that the rush to deploy unproven technology is an expensive fool’s errand.  More time can and should be dedicated to research and development of interceptors capable of success under realistic conditions that include multiple ballistic missiles and a variety of countermeasures.

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