Missile defenseBadly engineered missile defense systems deployed “because there was a rush”

Published 18 June 2014

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to build space- and ground-based missile defense systems. The space-based component was abandoned as impractical, and the focus shifted to Ground-based Midcourse Defense systems (GMD). Despite disappointing results and program test failures, Congress and the George W. Bush administration pressed forward with spending billions on acquiring systems of questionable reliability. “We recognize the problems we have had with all the currently fielded interceptors,” Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall old an industry gathering in February 2014. “The root cause was a desire to field these things very quickly and very cheaply; we are seeing a lot of bad engineering, frankly, and it was because there was a rush.”

For decades America believed that the cold war doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) would deter both the United States and the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear weapon against each other. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty codified this doctrine by restricting either country from building systems to intercept intercontinental missiles. Policy makers understood that missile defense systems would undermine the fear of retaliatory destruction.

The concern with possible attacks from rogue states including North Korea led President George W. Bush to withdraw from the 1972 treaty in 2001. President Ronald Reagan’s $30 billion Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), launched in 1983 to explore ground and space based systems which would destroy nuclear weapons targeting the United States, failed to produce effective defensive systems. Work on missile defense system continued in the 1990s, and was given higher priority under Bush, who pushed forward a fast paced initiative, and in 2004 the Missile Defense Agency, despite several failed tests, declared the defensive systems operational.

A Los Angeles Times investigation found that many former and current Pentagon officials familiar with the U.S. missile defense program consider it a failed program. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), tasked with developing and testing missile defense systems, has spent over $40 billion to develop the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), a system many industry observers call unreliable and requiring complete redesign. Testing the GMD began in 1999, and the MDA has passed only eight of sixteen tests conducted to test the system’s ability to intercept a mock enemy warhead. Of the eight tests held since it was declared operational in 2004, five have been failures. GMD interceptors, based in California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and Ft. Greely, Alaska were rushed into action observers now declare.

The system is not reliable,” said a recently retired senior military official who served under Presidents Barack Obama and Bush. “We took a system that was still in development — it was a prototype — and it was declared to be ‘operational’ for political reasons.” Dean A. Wilkening, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California and member of the National Academy of Sciences panel which issued a 2011 report on missile defense, called the system a “prototype system” that “has performed less well than people had hoped.” He added, “if you’re going to rely on that as an operational system, one shouldn’t be too surprised that it does tend to fail more than you’d like.”

Congressional testimony and reports acquired by theTimes from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Pentagon’s independent testing office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Defense Science Board show that officials overstated the GMD’s reliability. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld exempted the GMD program from standard practices of testing new technology before the government makes an official purchase. When recently asked about the status of GMD, Dexter Henson, a spokesman for Boeing, the primary contractor and manager for the system, told Times that the company “remains confident in the system’s ability to defeat potential adversaries.” Yet the system has failed repeatedly to intercept mock missiles.

Repeated calls in 2008 by former MDA chief Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly to fix GMD system errors, including poor interceptors, were met with skepticism. O’Reilly first persuaded then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to delay expansion plans and instead redesign new interceptors, but after a series of interventions by senators, including Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), to proceed with expansion of the GMD system, Gates yielded to the senators requests. TheTimes notes that Alabama hosts a large number of missile-defense related jobs.

MDA continued with the expansion of the missile defense fleet despite several testing failures. Frank Kendall III, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, might have recently issued the most accurate assessment of GMD when he told a defense industry conference in February 2014 that “we recognize the problems we have had with all the currently fielded interceptors. The root cause was a desire to field these things very quickly and very cheaply…. We are seeing a lot of bad engineering, frankly, and it was because there was a rush.”