War Stories

Missile Defense: Mission Unaccomplished

When will Bush stop throwing billions at a failing project?

It’s curious that on the campaign trail George W. Bush has boasted of many accomplishments, whether real or imaginary, but the missile-defense program has almost never been among them. This is no small point. Bush pushed missile defense as a major issue in the 2000 election. From the start of his presidency, he made it one of his top priorities. He revoked the 1972 Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty in order to pursue the program at full throttle. He tripled its budget ($10.7 billion this year alone, more than twice as much as for any other weapon system). He demanded that the Pentagon start fielding the system by the fall of 2004—that is, before the coming election—and indeed, last July, the first antimissile missile was lowered into its silo, a second is now in place, and eight more are scheduled to follow in the next few weeks.

Keeping America safe from attack is the central theme of the president’s re-election campaign. Why then—except for a rally last month at a Boeing plant where a piece of the program is manufactured—has he scarcely mentioned missile defense?

Perhaps because the program is having serious problems—and because Bush knows it’s having problems.

A few weeks ago, according to Pentagon officials, Bush received a briefing on the program’s status from Gen. James E. Cartwright, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, the branch of the military in charge of nuclear war planning (it used to be called Strategic Air Command). Cartwright, who was appointed to the command just last July, was a strange choice for the job. He is a career Marine officer, the first Marine ever to be named to the job. The Marine Corps has no involvement in strategic nuclear weapons and never has. But Cartwright—a former aviation wing commander who’s spent the last few years in the Pentagon, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s director of force structure, resources, and assessment—is known as a straight shooter (his nickname is “Hoss,” like the Cartwright on the old TV show Bonanza). So Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent Hoss to toss the lasso around the nuke-gnomes at StratComm. (One official, who half-admires Rumsfeld, calls the appointment “typical Rummy—keep ‘em on their toes.”)

Officials say that Cartwright is well aware of the serious delays and technical uncertainties plaguing missile defense and that he outlined the problems clearly in his briefing to President Bush.

The latest chapter in the long saga of the search for an antimissile missile—a saga that goes back a half-century—occurred earlier this month. Bradley Graham wrote about it in the Sept. 14 Washington Post (and, as far as I know, no other major media outlet has followed up on his story). Graham didn’t report on Cartwright’s briefing. But he did uncover the fact that the Missile-Defense Agency has delayed—for the second time in two months and now until at least the end of the year—a crucial flight test of the interceptor.

The pathetic fact is, the interceptor isn’t ready for a test. Glitches discovered from the last test still haven’t been fixed. The test crews are stumped by the cause, so they’ve sent it back to the factory to see if someone there can find a solution.

And yet the Pentagon has decided that the thing is ready for production and deployment. The  agency is proceeding with plans to deploy 10 of the interceptors over the next few weeks in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska. (For more about Bush’s missile-defense dreams and nightmares, click here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

When Bush announced two years ago that he was accelerating the deployment of these interceptors, the point was to have some capability to shoot down nuclear missiles, especially those that might be fired by North Korea, by the eve of the ‘04 election.

As Graham notes, it has been two years since the interceptors have been flight tested. The rocket booster designed to lift them into outer space—to collide with North Korean missiles as they arc across the heavens—has never been tested while carrying an interceptor. Nor has it been tested at more than half its required speed. The interceptors, launched by other means, did hit their target in five out of eight flight tests (the last of which took place in December 2002), but those tests were—not to put too fine a point on it—rigged. The targets were “lit up” so the sensors could spot them more quickly. The technicians knew where the target was coming from and where it was going. The hits were remarkable technical achievements, but they proved nothing about how the system would perform against a real missile in an actual attack (nor, in fairness to the MDA, were the tests intended to prove anything about that).

Back in the early 1980s, after some scandals involving major weapons systems that were deployed before they’d been adequately tested, the Pentagon adopted a policy of “fly before buy.” No system would graduate from research and development to procurement until it had passed a series of tests—not just “development tests,” in which a weapon demonstrates certain technical milestones, but “operational tests,” in which the weapon demonstrates it can do what it’s supposed to do in an environment simulating combat.

The interceptors at Fort Greely haven’t passed development tests, much less operational tests. Yet they’re being hoisted into their silos as we speak—10 in the coming weeks, 10 more scheduled for next year.

According to Graham’s Post story, the Pentagon’s testing officials estimate in an internal briefing that the interceptors now being deployed would have only a 20 percent chance of shooting down a nuclear missile. An official familiar with the briefing told me that the 20 percent estimate was “on the high side” of a range of probabilities. (The MDA calculated that each interceptor would have an 80 percent chance of hitting its target, but few outside its headquarters seem to take that estimate seriously.)

It’s worth noting that these interceptors are among the simplest elements of the missile-defense plan. The full system is envisioned to entail three defensive layers. There is a “boost-phase intercept”—satellite-based weapons, orbiting over suspected nuclear sites, that would shoot down enemy missiles minutes or seconds after they’re launched, preferably while they’re still ascending in the atmosphere. Then there is the “midcourse intercept”—missiles or lasers on airplanes and ships, as well as in silos on the ground, that would shoot down the missiles as they arc through their trajectory in outer space. (The Fort Greeley interceptors are designed for midcourse intercept.) Finally, there is the “terminal intercept”—missiles, mainly modified versions of Patriot air-defense missiles, that would shoot down the attacker’s nuclear warheads as they plunge to their targets in the United States.

For the moment, the more exotic weapons in this scheme are years away from being developed, much less built. The un-modified Patriots, as we saw in last year’s war in Iraq, still have trouble distinguishing missiles from airplanes (and have never successfully tracked multiple missiles simultaneously). Finally, all of these elements would have to be linked in an automatic data-processing network more complex than any such network ever constructed. The network would link a) the early warning radar that detects the launching of missiles to b) the release codes that fire the first layer of missile-defense weapons to c) the sensors that guide those weapons to the target to d) the sensors that detect whether the target was hit to e) the release codes that fire the next layer of missile-defense weapons … and on it goes, all the way to the final layer. The entire network would have to operate automatically (there would be no time for human control), and it would have to work without ever having been truly completely tested. Commercial software systems, such as Windows, go through several debugging cycles even after they’ve been released to the marketplace, i.e., after the engineers back at Microsoft think they’ve fixed all the problems. This is a normal process; everyone expects it. With the software system for missile defense, there would be no chance for debugging. It has to work the first time out.

According to some officials, the engineers working in the bowels of the missile-defense program know this. They are proceeding as if it were a normal research and development project. They know that, at this stage, technically, that’s all it can be. The thing is, President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld see it as a fast-track procurement program ready for—and undergoing—deployment. The president has now heard, from Gen. Cartwright, that this expectation is unreal. This may be why Bush has refrained from proclaiming another “mission accomplished.” The question now is whether he’ll take the next step and realize that, given the program’s true status, there’s no point lavishing it with so many billions of dollars, especially when “homeland defense” against more real and urgent threats are barely getting millions.