War Stories


The Pentagon trashes Bush’s missile defense plans.

It is a rare thing when an outside critique of the president’s most cherished weapons project is validated by an official Pentagon agency, so let me gloat for a moment. In yesterday’s Slate, I wrote that the missile defense system—which George W. Bush wants to start deploying next year, without first subjecting its components to serious testing—was not remotely ready for prime time. Tests conducted to date have been few and have not even pretended to simulate the complexities of shooting down an enemy’s ballistic missile (much less missiles). Key elements of such a system are at an early stage of research and development; some do not exist in any form. Finally, there are reasons to doubt whether an anti-missile system can ever be successful, no matter how much money is spent (and at $9.1 billion next year, on top of $70 billion spent over the past two decades, Bush is giving it a major financial boost).

I did not know it at the time, but also yesterday the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation released its annual report, a 300-plus-page booklet that delves into every U.S. weapon in the defense budget. And the section on missile defense makes many of the same observations, plus some. Unlike past years’ reports, this one is not—and, a public-affairs spokesman told me, will not be—available online, so I haven’t yet seen the full document. However, stories in today’s edition of two trade papers, Space News (“Report Casts Doubt on Missile Defense”) and Inside Missile Defense (“DoD Test Report Says NMD System Not Yet Operationally Ready”), reprint (by their standards) juicy quotes.

For example, the report concludes that the system Bush wants to begin fielding next year “has yet to demonstrate significant operational capability.” The test program to date “has suffered from the lack of production-representative test articles and test infrastructure limitations.” (Translation: The mock-warheads that the MD’s interceptors have been shooting down do not resemble the warheads that a real enemy would fire our way.) Even after the system is fielded and tests continue, the report notes, “it will be very difficult to estimate operational … performance in real engagement conditions.”

According to the trade papers’ summaries, the report also notes that the program currently lacks an effective rocket-booster for launching the interceptors toward their targets, as well as X-band radars needed to detect enemy missiles in flight. Tests to date have been limited in many ways: no realistic decoys, slower-than-normal velocities, trajectories that do not resemble the real flight-paths that a missile or an anti-missile would really follow.

Furthermore, the attempt to upgrade the Navy’s Aegis anti-aircraft system into an anti-missile system has apparently been a failure. Tests have been particularly simplistic, and the system as it exists can offer only a “limited expectation of success,” the report states. The element known as Theater High-Altitude Area Defense, which is intended to destroy enemy missiles as they re-enter the atmosphere and head toward their targets, is in deep trouble, having failed the last six consecutive tests. This rather crucial program “has no operational capability,” the report concludes, “because there is no deployable hardware.”

The report’s author, Thomas Christie, the director of the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation office, even gets personal in his analysis:

One of my chief concerns is the potential for [missile defense] systems to circumvent the rigorous acquisition process and enter into full-rate production or into the hands of our warfighters without learning the operational capabilities and limitations demonstrated by adequate operational testing and evaluation.

In other words, pushing the program into production and deployment is not only premature but potentially counterproductive.