Space-based missile defense still unwise

Congress, in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, has directed the Pentagon to develop a space-based, boost- phase missile defense system, whether or not the administration’s as-yet-unreleased Missile Defense Review endorses the concept. This defense would be regionally-focused, with a proposed live-fire intercept test during fiscal year 2022. No money has yet been appropriated to carry out these plans.

The aim is to build a constellation of defensive weapons in space to intercept long-range missiles in their “boost phase,” the first three-to-five minutes of launch while their engines are burning. Destroying the missile in boost phase provides an advantage — it catches the missile before it can release decoys and other countermeasures that greatly complicate intercepting during the subsequent midcourse phase, when the missile’s warhead is coasting through the vacuum of space.

Boost-phase defense is also an enormous technical challenge. Because launch is short, the defense must be close enough to the launch site to reach the missile quickly. Because North Korea’s geography — a relatively compact peninsula — allows for the possibility of hosting defenses on its periphery, proposals for boost phase defenses have included putting interceptors or lasers on ships, drones or airplanes. This is the motivation for putting missile defense satellites in low Earth orbits — with altitudes of a few hundred kilometers — that periodically pass over the missile’s launch site.

In 2005, the American Physical Society conducted an in-depth study of boost-phase missile defense and concluded that space-based missile defense would be extremely costly. In its 2012 study, the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering drew on this work and agreed, concluding that a space-based, boost-phase missile defense would cost 10 times more than any terrestrial alternative. A system providing a severely limited capability to defend against a few North Korean missiles, a constellation of 600 interceptors costing on order of $300 billion, would be required.

While such a system would rank among the most expensive military projects ever attempted, the most serious issue isn’t the cost — it’s the fragility. The system would be vulnerable to being overwhelmed by the salvo launch of several missiles. Doubling the number of missiles that the system could deal with would require doubling the size of the system.

Since the interceptors orbit at an altitude of a few hundred kilometers, they are also vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons launched from the ground on short- or medium-range missiles as well as to space-based, anti-satellite weapons. Adversaries could use these weapons to create gaps in the defense, rendering it ineffective.

That a space-based missile defense system would be unwise from a military and economic point of view is clearly the case for a fully deployed defense, and it holds true even for a small number of orbiting “testbed” interceptors, which would still have signifi-cant security costs.

Pursuing space-based missile defense continues to be costly and deeply unwise.

– edited from an article by Laura Grego, Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, APS Physics & Society, October 2018
PeaceMeal, January/February 2019

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Missile defense flight test secrecy may be reversed

Earlier this year, President Trump’s Department of Defense classified information about ballistic missile defense (BMD) flight tests, objectives and schedules. Such information had routinely been made public in the past.

But some members of the House Armed Services Committee, in their initial markup of the FY2019 National Defense Authoriza-tion Act, said that the new secrecy was unacceptable, at least with respect to the test schedule. They directed that, together with the release of an integrated master test plan, the Director of the Missile Defense Agency “shall make publicly available a version of each such plan that identifies the fiscal year and the fiscal quarter in which events under the plan will occur.”

Under other circumstances, the executive branch might con-sider it an intolerable infringement on its authority for Congress to require information to be unclassified over and against an agency’s own judgment or preference. But in the context of the ambitious and contentious defense authorization act — which among other things would establish a new U.S. Space Command under U.S. Strategic Command — this particular dispute over classification authority recedes into comparative insignificance.

Somewhat relatedly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have updated DoD doctrine on space operations, with an expanded discussion of natural and man-made threats. The doctrine describes general approaches to defending against threats to space-based assets, including defensive operations, reconstitution, and enhanced resilience through distribution, proliferation and deception.

“Our adversaries’ progress in space technology not only threatens the space environment and our space assets but could potentially deny us an advantage if we lose space superiority,” the JCS said.

– edited from Federation of American Scientists, April 26, 2018
PeaceMeal, May/June 2018

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Flawed missile defense system generated $2 billion in bonuses for Boeing

WASHINGTON DC – From 2002 through early 2015, the Pentagon conducted 11 flight tests of the nation’s homeland missile defense system. In the carefully scripted exercises, interceptors of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD) were launched from underground silos to pursue mock enemy warheads high above the Pacific. The interceptors failed to destroy their targets in six of the 11 tests — a record that has prompted independent experts to conclude the system cannot be relied on to foil a nuclear strike by North Korea or Iran.

Yet over that same timespan, Boeing Co., the Pentagon’s prime contractor for GMD, collected nearly $2 billion in performance bonuses for a job well-done. The Pentagon paid Boeing more than $21 billion total for managing the system during that period. The Times obtained details about the payments through a lawsuit it filed against the Defense Department under the Freedom of Information Act. A spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, Chris Johnson, said the payments “complied with all appropriate acquisition regulations.”

A Times investigation also found that the criteria for the yearly bonuses were changed at some point to de-emphasize the importance of test results that demonstrate the system’s ability to intercept and destroy incoming warheads. Early on, Boeing’s contract specified that bonuses would be based primarily on “hit to kill success” in flight tests. In later years, the words “hit to kill” were removed in favor of more generally phrased benchmarks.

L. David Montague, co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences panel that documented shortcomings with GMD, called the $2 billion in bonuses “mind-boggling,” given the system’s performance. Montague, a former president of missile systems for Lockheed Corp., said the bonuses suggest that the Missile Defense Agency is a “rogue organization” in need of strict supervision.

The GMD system is intended to thwart a “limited” nuclear strike by a non-superpower. In a February 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, said the system’s performance in tests has been “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”

The test failures are particularly unsettling given that the exercises are meticulously orchestrated. Personnel operating the GMD system know ahead of time approximately when the targets will be launched and from where, as well their expected speed and trajectory — information they would not have in an actual attack.

Given the system’s weaknesses, multiple interceptors would have to be launched for each incoming enemy warhead to assure a hit to kill, according to current and former officials familiar with the missile agency’s projections. As a result, the system’s arsenal of 30 operational interceptors — four at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and 26 at Ft. Greely, Alaska — could be quickly depleted by an attack with multiple missiles.

Boeing holds two contracts to manage GMD. Under their terms, the company is reimbursed for its direct costs in overseeing the system and for some of its indirect costs, such as executive salaries and other overhead. The bonuses come on top of that.

In 2010, the MDA granted Boeing a contract extension worth more than $1 billion. The Defense Department’s inspector general later raised questions about the extension — including bonus payments — saying that agency officials lost an opportunity to save millions of dollars by failing to wait for an audit they had requested. The inspector general concluded that, if agency officials had waited to see the audit, they “could have negotiated a significantly lower contract value and saved the government millions of dollars in reduced fees” — a reference to bonuses, which are based on the total contract value.

The MDA and its lead contractors have sought to put a positive spin on the system’s performance. After a flight test on Jan. 28, 2016, the agency and several contractors, including Boeing, issued news releases declaring the test a success. In fact, a thruster, which helps steer the kill vehicle, stopped working during the exercise, causing the kill vehicle to fly far off its intended course. None of the press releases acknowledged the malfunction — nor did the MDA’s director, Vice Adm. James D. Syring, in three subsequent appearances before congressional panels.

– edited from the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 2, 2016
PeaceMeal, May/June 2017

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)