Keep missile defense system on course

Increasingly strident threats from hostile nations make it clear that a strong missile defense system in Europe is critical to U.S. troops deployed abroad and our allies. In recent weeks, Russia began to advance on Crimea, and Iran claimed it had successfully tested a new generation of long-range ballistic missiles.

The good news is that the United States, with the support of Congress, is on a prudent timeline to field next-generation missiles in Europe to protect against these threats.

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However, a recent call by a group of U.S. senators to accelerate this timeline could prove disastrous for our mission: protecting against growing missile threats.

The Russian Aggression Prevention Act, introduced April 30, has several key provisions designed to deter Russian aggression, including increasing U.S. and NATO support for forces in eastern Europe; placing additional sanctions on those involved in Crimea; imposing sanctions on four Russian banks; providing direct military assistance to resistance in Ukraine; and other important steps.  

But one of the bill's provisions is potentially problematic: The bill would require the third phase of the current missile defense program to be deployed in Poland by 2016, at least two years earlier than planned. 

The desire of these senators to keep up pressure on Russia is certainly understandable, and the intent of their legislation is laudable.  But we ought to proceed carefully when attempting to speed up complex technology development, and perhaps look to another missile defense example that has been defined by rolling out too quickly.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and North Korea boasting of a nuclear weapon, the Bush Administration rushed deployment of a system to protect the United States from long-range ballistic missile attacks.  Since then, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD) has faced a host of challenges stemming from that decision, however understandable it was at the time, which ultimately sacrificed engineering for speed.

A system that should have been allowed 15 years or more from inception to deployment was squeezed into just eight years.  System engineering was drastically cut short; production was initiated prior to the completion of testing; and highly complicated technology designed to take out intercontinental ballistic missiles outside the Earth's atmosphere was too immature and didn't work.  In more recent years, the GMD program has suffered from lack of funding for testing and redesign.

As a result, the GMD is still working to live up to its potential.  While the GMD performed successfully in numerous tests early on, it has failed to intercept targets in the three tests since 2008.  

Fortunately, the problems with the GMD are still fixable through a short-term redesign of the exoatmospheric kill vehicle, the warhead that is central to the interception system, and the Department of Defense's FY 2015 budget appropriately requests an investment for this redesign.

In contrast, other missile defense systems that have been permitted proper design and development time have been remarkably effective.  For instance, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system and earlier variants of its Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) have passed 26 of 32 tests, including 5-for-5 intercepts in 2013 and a first successful flight test of Aegis Ashore in May.    

So, as a nation we know how to build these systems.  Enter the next generation of the SM-3, the IIA, which the U.S. Navy is co-developing with Japan.  This is the missile system scheduled to be deployed in Poland in 2018.  By every measure, this advanced interceptor will answer this call, and these senators have picked up on the initial successes of the SM-3 program and perhaps assumed more than should be.

This program is phased intentionally to ensure logical technology progression, each building on its prior phase.  The first phase was deployed in 2011, and the second is set for 2015.  But it is not practical for the third phase to be ready for prime time in 2016, at least two years early.  Such expectations would shortchange the engineering cycle and risk cost overruns.

But if given the room it needs to develop, there is every expectation that the SM-3 IIA will do its job to protect key U.S. allies and our troops in harm's way. ​ We should benefit from our previous experiences and let good acquisition be the hallmark of our successful development and deployment, not politics.

Anderson is a former head of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command.