Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) is the only U.S. military system that has demonstrated the ability to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles. Such missiles can achieve speeds of several miles per second and may carry a combination of multiple warheads and penetration aids, so interception is very challenging. Overall, GMD only has a 50 percent success rate since it was hurriedly deployed in 2004 prior to thorough testing. July 5 marked the most recent test failure and underscores the need for more frequent testing to improve operability of the system.
The lack of interception on July 5 was caused by the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) — the actual component that collides with the incoming warhead — failing to separate from the booster. The malfunction demonstrates how real, live testing can identify problems that may not otherwise be detected by computer simulations. U.S. Representative Mike Rogers puts the issue into perspective by asking, “Has anyone… ever kept a car in the garage for five years and then pulled it out one day and expected to go for a cross-country drive? Of course not. Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve done with our only homeland defense system.”
One example of the effectiveness of missile-defense testing is the U.S. Navy’s strict testing schedule while developing the Aegis system. As a result of rigorous experimentation, the Aegis system has an 82 percent success rate and protects Europe from short and intermediate-range missiles. Vice Admiral James D. Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) declared, “We cannot stop testing. We must continue to test. We cannot wait another 4.5 to 5 years to test again.” James Miller, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, agrees with Syring by stating, “I’d like to see us get to a testing pattern that is more frequent than it has been in recent years, both as a matter of good acquisition and maintenance practice, and as a demonstration that the system works.”
Some lawmakers blame reduced funding for GMD test failures. In 2008 funding for the GMD system was just over $2 billion, but it was reduced to half of that total in 2012, and continues to decline. Not only has funding diminished, but missile tests carry hefty price tags of over $200 million per test — further contributing to the affordability dilemma. Additionally, the missile agency intended for a new EKV (with multiple kill vehicles on a single missile to increase probability of hitting an incoming warhead) to be used for the July 5 test, but this program was cancelled in 2009. Frequent testing and modernization of the EKV — crucial to the overall health of the GMD system — are clearly tough to afford with strained financial resources.
The U.S. has lacked a clear strategy to protect the homeland from ICBMs, illustrated by the White House’s indecisiveness on program implementation. First, the deployment of ground-based interceptors in Poland was cancelled and replaced with the SM-3 II B interceptor program (the final phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach meant to protect the U.S. from missiles aimed at Washington). Then the administration replaced the SM-3 II B program with the addition of 14 interceptors to the GMD system due to the increasing North Korean threat, resulting in escalating dependence on the system.
Frequent testing of the GMD system is a necessary expense that should not be sacrificed. Boosting the GMD system’s protection capabilities with more testing will equip the nation with the power to defend itself from incoming ICBMs. At this time, Vice Admiral Syring has budgeted for two flight trials in fiscal year 2014 and at least one test annually in following years. The next GMD test is planned for March 2014. If that test is successful, the MDA plans to begin purchasing 14 additional interceptors to add to the GMD system.
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