The successful intercept of a ballistic missile high over the Pacific Ocean last Friday should quiet the critics who keep saying missile defense doesn’t work. But don’t count on it. Stubborn opposition dies slowly.
Arms-control activists and some congressional Democrats keep calling for “operational testing” of the national missile defense system, implying that current testing is inadequate. Critics, including many in the media, routinely write that missile defense “doesn’t work,” and then call for more flight tests. When Congress cut funds for a missile defense site in Poland, one of the reasons given was that more operational testing of ground-based defenses was needed.
But consider what happened last Friday. A ballistic missile launched from Kodiak, Alaska, flew thousands of miles southeast before being struck and destroyed some 100 miles over the ocean by an interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast. It was an operational interceptor, same as the nearly two dozen now in silos in Alaska and California, launched from an operational site, using operational command and control, manned by operational crews and tracked by the operational radar at Beale AFB, Calif.
If that is not an operational test, what is? It was as realistic as possible within safety constraints. A similar successful test by an operational interceptor was conducted from Vandenberg a year ago. Both were challenging end-to-end tests, demonstrating all components of a very complex system work together effectively. Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, notes there now have been 22 successes in 23 attempts of missile defense tests since 2005.
Critics say this mixes tests of long-range and short-range interceptors. But the point is that the basic technology, which is similar in both, works as intended. There always will be test failures, but that is how problems are identified and fixed. Overall, the missile defense test program has been highly successful.
In last week’s test the satellite-based missile warning system detected the launch, the Beale radar acquired the target and tracked it, and data was passed to the fire control and communications unit, which launched the interceptor. The kill vehicle separated from the booster rocket, received target data from the Beale radar, and then pointed toward the target and homed in to destroy it.
An Aegis ship in the Pacific and the sea-based X-band radar successfully tracked the target. In the next flight test early next year, data from Aegis and X-band radars will be used to direct the interceptor toward the target. The X-band radar then will be the primary engagement radar, which will provide a huge increase in capability. Transportable X-band radars also will be used in future tests.
Critics claim the defense can be overcome if the incoming missile deploys decoys or other penetration aids. But the emerging missile defense system includes an extensive network of land- and sea-based radars. With a variety of sensors tracking the target, the chance of distinguishing warheads from decoys is greatly improved. The X-band radar, working in conjunction with the interceptor’s on-board sensors, is especially good at such discrimination. Past flight tests include five successful intercepts in which penetration aids were used, and more of these tests will be conducted in the future.
A frequent complaint is that there have not been enough flight tests of the ground-based missile defense system. Some would delay the deployment of defenses until more tests have been completed. But Charles McQueary, head of the Defense Department’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, has endorsed two flight tests per year.
Mr. McQueary told Congress the flight test program is viable, explaining it is important to leave enough time between tests to analyze the data and make sure nothing went wrong. Besides, at a cost of some $85 million for each intercept test, it would be expensive and wasteful to do more than necessary.
Launching target missiles from Alaska toward the continental United States has made the tests more realistic than launching westward from California. Future tests against salvos and penetration aids will add even more realism. Yet, critics continue to claim the tests are not sufficiently realistic. Some purists will not be content until North Korea launches a missile at this country, providing the ultimate in reality testing.
But two outstanding intercepts in 12 months by an operational missile defense system should quiet even the most severe critics.
James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in Carlsbad, Calif.
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