Beneficial lessons can be realized from missile-defense tests even if they are labeled as failures. In some cases, failure or lack of interception is advantageous because it means technology is being pushed to the extreme, potentially facilitating modifications of the weapon to function at its best in the future. Missile-defense systems are complex and glitches are to be expected, as with any experimentation using intricate systems. Missile-defense tests represent learning opportunities which can identify areas that can be refined to increase accuracy and operability of missile-defense systems.
The most recent missile test labeled as a failure was that of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system that took place on July 5. This is the third consecutive failure of the system since 2010 (a successful test was conducted in 2008). The lack of interception may be due to a faulty battery that hindered the interceptor from separating from the rocket, according to an initial investigation. While the most recent test failed to intercept its target, it does not mean that discoveries were not made that will help improve the overall system.
In fact, Admiral James D. Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, stated that the test achieved secondary objectives, including demonstration of the system’s sensors and a trial run of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system sensor equipment for the first time. Examples of past lessons learned as a result of missile-defense tests branded as failures also include a December 2004 GMD test that allowed engineers to identify and fix a software issue, and a January 2012 GMD test that confirmed the new kill vehicle was able to discriminate the warhead amongst decoys and debris.
Other missile systems have had disappointing beginnings, but are considered successes today, such as the Standard Missile (SM). In its infancy the SM had to be warmed up before fired – taking up critical time in the heat of battle. This step was eventually eliminated after improvements were made to the system. The Terrier, an earlier version of the SM, used radar technology called “beam riding” which decreased accuracy at great ranges. To date, various versions of the SM-3 have intercepted 25 out of 31 flight-test attempts since testing began in 2002. While six flight tests were deemed unsuccessful, it allowed identification of imperfections to advance the weapon system.
As a result of this research and development, the SM-3 Block IB, which is central to the U.S. Navy’s role in missile defense, accomplished its third consecutive intercept test on May 15. Furthermore, steady improvement of the SM has led to the latest version, the SM-6 surface-to-air missile, which is expected to protect U.S. warships by April 2015.
The Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is another example that began with failure and ended with success. The SLBM was developed in the 1950s and was considered to have failed 12 out of 17 times in about a one-year time period. After further examination and refinement the missile was deployed and many of the technical advances were later combined in the Trident SLBM, expected to remain in service until 2040.
While some believe the GMD system in California and Alaska is unreliable in defeating intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and may not be worth its hefty price tag (the test on July 5 alone cost about $214 million), three consecutive test failures essentially symbolizes the need for more testing, research, and development to isolate flaws in the system. Yes, tests are costly, but the GMD system is the only tool we have to protect the U.S. from incoming ICBMs. Michael Gilmore, director of the Operational Test and Evaluation Office of the Secretary of Defense, has stated that “the value of the tests is more demonstrated by…the failure modes that we’ve found by conducting those tests in Aegis and ground-based missile defense… Those failures would not have been found if we didn’t do that testing and relied solely on modeling and simulation.”
More missile-defense research, development and tests are needed to identify areas of improvement for the GMD system or else the Obama Administration needs to find other alternatives to protect the homeland from an intentional or accidental nuclear-missile launch. Some alternatives include investing in a third missile-defense site with better capability, increasing dependence on the U.S. Navy and the mobile Aegis system, or funding research and development of more cost-effective space-based systems that would zap the missile in flight, as originally envisioned by President Ronald Reagan.
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