This weekend the Missile Defense Agency’s latest test of its Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) failed. This is the third failure in a row. In fact, the last successful intercept test was some five years ago. Of the 17 tests conducted since 1999, slightly more than half, nine to be specific, have been failures.
This wouldn’t be so bad if GBI were a developmental system. But it happens to be a deployed capability. The GBI is the only missile interceptor deployed to protect the U.S. homeland from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack by countries such as North Korea or Iran. In fact, the Obama Administration recently doubled down on the GBI. Responding to Pyongyang’s saber rattling earlier this year, the White House decided to restore the original Bush Administration plan to deploy some 44 interceptors at sites in Alaska and California by adding back 14 interceptors that it had previously decided not to deploy.
The administration has a real problem on its hands. Well actually, two problems. A system that can’t do better than 50-50 overall and has swung and missed in its last three times at bat cannot be said to be operational. Back in 2009, the White House national security team thought so little of national missile defense in general, and GBI in particular, that it not only cut back on the number of deployed interceptors but also slashed funding for R&D tended to improve the missile’s performance. Now it is the only defensive capability there is standing between the regime in Pyongyang and a nuclear weapon landing on a U.S. city.
Which brings me to the second problem. At the same time that it announced the deployment of the 14 additional GBIs, the Obama Administration cancelled the fourth and final step in its Phased Adaptive Architecture. The heart of Phase IV was to be a new interceptor, larger than any designed around the current Standard Missile 3, one capable of engaging ICBMs. Operating as part of a land and sea-based architecture built around the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, the new missile, the SM 3 Block 2B as it was known, could have protected U.S. allies from the longest-range missile threats. Equally important, because forward deployed in Europe or the Pacific it could have intercepted Iranian or North Korean ICBMs targeted on the United States, Phase IV would have been a hedge against the possibility that the Missile Defense Agency couldn’t get the GBI to work properly. The SM 3 Block 2B could have been deployed in the Eastern U.S. as a so-called Third Site for less than it would have cost to place GBIs there, even if that missile worked.
Now the United States has a deployed system on which we cannot rely and no back up. Call it disarmament by incompetence. This is a national security crisis of the administration’s own making.
What are the President’s options? It seems to me there are three. First, he can spend a lot of money to try and get the GBI to work. Second, he can reverse his reversal and declare that in view of the uncertain status of GBI, we will develop the SM 3 Bock 2B. Or he can ignore the whole thing and count on a compliant media and quiescent adversaries to give him a pass.
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