US Missile Defense Test: Realistic Assessment of ‘Incredible Accomplishment’
Andrei AKULOV | 05.06.2017 | SECURITY / DEFENSE

US Missile Defense Test: Realistic Assessment of ‘Incredible Accomplishment’

«The intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target is an incredible accomplishment for the GMD system and a critical milestone for this program», said Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Vice Adm. Jim Syring. «This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat». The MDA press release says the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the ballistic missile defense system provides combatant commanders the capability to engage and destroy intermediate and long-range ballistic missile threats to protect the U.S.

Sounds really impressive but is it really a credible deterrent against any threat, especially in view that the single test cost about $244 million? Actually, the statement made by the head of the MDA implies that from now the US has the capability to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles. If so, the strategic balance with Russia is going to change in the US favor. It calls for going deeper into the subject.

The upgraded Ground-based Midcourse Defense is destined to kill ICBMs in space. On May 30, the GMD was for the first time fired against an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – a much faster vehicle than short or intermediate range missiles. This time Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) tested new engines while intercepting and destroying a target in a direct collision. Previous tests did not use an ICBM as a target or only tested certain components of the complicated system. One has to give the devil his due - it’s a significant step forward.

A relatively small target was hit at a great distance measured in thousands of miles with both objects moving at breath taking speed at roughly 15,000 mph (24,000 km/h). The speed guarantees a kinetic kill and no explosive is required. It’s a good start though many more tests are needed to really acquire real exo-atmospheric kill capability. Only 32 interceptors are stationed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base with eight more to be deployed till the end of the current year. The interceptors have never operated in combat conditions and there are many more tests to go through before full operational capability is reached.

Today, the GMD is hardly reliable.19 tests have been conducted since 1999 with only 9 of them successful. Combined with the high cost, the tests gave the system a bad reputation. The EKV is the main problem. If the May 30 test were a failure, the future of the GMD program would be questioned. It was a matter of survival rather than achieving a technological breakthrough.

One does need to be a military expert to realize that a real success would be achieved after a number of tests conducted under various conditions. Will the interceptors hit the targets when electronic countermeasures and decoys are used? Normally, such measures reduce efficiency by roughly 50%. Russian and Chinese missiles carry sophisticated suites of countermeasures to overcome advanced ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. The GMD interceptors can hit only unsophisticated missiles launched by those who are new to the game, like North Korea, for instance. It leaves open the question of how the GMD interceptors would perform under real war conditions.

With its limited efficiency, the program’s estimated cost is $40 billion – an enormous sum to benefit the producers. But that’s not all. There is another costly program run by the MDA to counter Russian and Chinese missiles with the help of «directed-energy airborne laser» fired from a military drone. A weapon carried by remote-control aircraft loitering high over launch sites would add early interception ability to the GMD system, but it will require much time, effort and money and the doubts are great the laser will be powerful enough to do the job.

The MDA has also accelerated development of a Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV), which turns each interceptor into a kind of precision-guided shotgun, firing multiple warheads at multiple incoming targets from a single GBI rocket. Originally scheduled to enter service around 2030, the MOKV will now go on GMD interceptors (GBIs) in 2025. Funding requested for 2018 is $259 million, out of a $7.9 billion MDA budget. Costly enough to make taxpayers ask questions about the expediency and efficiency of the plans.

So, the May 30 test was not a great breakthrough and not a quantum leap as raving media reviews describe it. It was big step forward, but not more than that. The GMD remains rather powerless against contemporary ICBMs like the Russian RS-24 Yars, for instance. But it’s hardly a coincidence that the test was conducted against the background of three carrier groups being deployed near North Korea and the urgent deployment of THAAD missile defense systems in South Korea without prior knowledge of the South Korean government! This is a sign that the US mulls a preventive strike against Pyongyang.

The May 30 test will no doubt soothe Americans’ concern over a possible North Korean response in case such an attack is carried out. The missiles North Korea has in the inventory are believed to threaten Hawaii with 11 bases across multiple service branches and the island of Guam, which is a military asset too.

And it will certainly inspire the MDA to ask for more appropriations. The agency «relative to its size has probably wasted more money on canceled technology projects than any other federal organization in modern times», Loren Thompson, a well-known defense expert wrote for Forbes in 2011. More than five years has passed and some experts are warning that as a whole the testing record is not enough to instill confidence. The system may not be as reliable as people might think. Philip Coyle, a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation told CNN on May 31, «Based on its testing record, we cannot rely upon this missile defense program to protect the United States from a North Korean long-range missile».

The US media ravishment appears to be exaggerated. The May 30 test was a limited success. But the North Korean threat will be exploited to spur the GMD and other very costly BMD programs.