Leveraging lessons from missile defense

It’s been said that failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. This sage perspective is particularly apt as we work to perfect the United States’ missile defense.

With intelligence reports predicting that Iran and North Korea could develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015, solidifying our confidence in America’s missile shield is paramount. After all, just one solution today – known as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System based at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – stands between a long-range missile attack from North Korea or Iran on the U.S. homeland.

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This is why worldwide attention will be paid to a Missile Defense Agency test of the GMD on Sunday. The results will send a message not only to America and our allies, but to hostile nations aggressively pursuing technologies of mass destruction.

As policymakers in Washington, D.C. reflect on the future of GMD through the lens of this month’s test, it is also important to consider how we arrived at where we are today.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon, the former head of the Army’s Air and Missile Defense Command, has noted, “Today’s missile defense system is a product of a fast-track development process that pushed the technology envelope and went from the birth of the program to fielded capability in only eight years. By any measure, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system’s unique operating and testing environments are extreme and its achievements to date are remarkable, as other major programs normally spend 15 or more years in development.”

A missile-defense expert and physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Dr. Dean Wilkening, recently echoed this conclusion. At a Brookings Institute panel discussion, Wilkening said that GMD has suffered “for the simple reason it’s a prototype system” that was “rushed into the field.”

Even after facing technological challenges resulting from an accelerated production schedule, GMD was routinely under-resourced and neglected. The current administration promptly reversed plans for an additional 14 interceptors while slashing maintenance budgets and shuttering silos in Fort Greeley, Alaska. In all, the GMD budget has been cut roughly in half since 2008.

Testing of the system has also fallen victim to apathy and political indifference. In fact, the Missile Defense Agency has conducted only 14 intercept tests in the last 10 years. This includes just three tests in the six years since President Obama took office.

Following an accelerated production schedule, without proper investment and regular tests, it is not surprising that GMD has failed to intercept targets in its last three tests. However, to focus on only the problems with GMD is to ignore the tremendous progress the system has made to date. The fact remains that engineers have learned a great deal from every test and have continually made improvements to GMD.

Take for instance, the failed test in December 2010. The component known as the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) – or the part of the interceptor that destroys the enemy missile – suffered a guidance error in the final seconds of flight. While dubbed a “failure,” significant data was captured during the launch that has improved the accuracy of simulations and future models. With each new test the technological boundaries of GMD are stretched beyond the previous, testing different countermeasures and threats from varying angles.

Moving forward, the Pentagon and Congress must take the Iranian and North Korean threats seriously and commit to three urgent priorities.

1. More testing: I will soon introduce legislation to mandate that GMD is tested at a minimum of once every year. When tests are conducted so infrequently, any failure becomes a referendum on its future viability. Tests and upgrades need to be incremental.

2. Short-term EKV design: Hitting a bullet with a bullet on Earth is no small technological feat; doing so in space while traveling full magnitudes faster takes both genius and resources. While the GMD’s kill vehicle has underperformed in recent tests, we simply cannot scrap the investment to date and start over. The needs of our combatant commanders require funding a short-term redesign so that GMD can meet the current threat timeline. We can’t afford to wait eight to ten years for a brand new kill vehicle concept without having a near-term fix.  

3. Full funding for additional interceptors: Regardless of the outcome of the June GMD test, more interceptors are needed. The Obama Administration’s March 2013 decision to reverse course on its cancelation of 14 additional interceptors is a step in the right direction. But in the meantime we’ve wasted five years. Congress must aggressively fund the production of these additional interceptors so they are operational no later than the end of 2017.  

In a world of rapidly increasing threats and diminishing resources, the U.S. must remain vigilant. Otherwise, we risk becoming vulnerable to missile strikes from our enemies abroad. While an attack on U.S. soil may seem improbable, it is clear that we can no longer rely on sanctions to defend our homeland. Our inability to use political pressure to prevent these rogue nations from acquiring and using lethal long-range missile technology highlights the urgent need to support U.S. missile defense today.

Young has served as Alaska's at-large representative since 1973. He sits on the Natural Resources and the Transportation and Infrastructure committees.