- American Physical Society Sites
- Meetings & Events
- Policy & Advocacy
- Careers In Physics
- About APS
- Become a Member
By Senator John F. Kerry, (D-MA)
As we approach the deadline for President Clinton's National Missile Defense (NMD) deployment decision, both the Congress and the Pentagon have focused intensely on the effectiveness of the proposed technology. I have grave concerns that we are sacrificing careful technical development of this system in order to meet the artificial deadline of the planned Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in 2005. Moreover, even if the system works as planned, I am not convinced that it will provide the most effective defense against the developing missile threat.
The Administration has proposed a limited, ground-based hit-to-kill system to protect all fifty states against small-scale attacks by ICBMs. The system will be deployed in 3 phases, with a target completion date of 2010. The completed system will include 200-250 interceptors, deployed in Alaska and North Dakota and complemented by a sophisticated array of upgraded early-warning radars and satellite-based launch detection and tracking systems.
My first question about this proposed NMD system is, will the technology work as intended?
That is, will it function at the most basic level? Will it be operationally effective against real world threats? And will it be reliable over time? I do not believe that the compressed testing program and decision deadline allow us to draw definitive conclusions about these three fundamental elements of readiness.
After three unsatisfactory tests, it is still unclear whether this system will function at a basic level, under the most favorable conditions. The first test in October 1999 is hailed as a success, because the interceptor did hit the target. But the Pentagon has conceded that the interceptor had initially been confused and drifted off course, ultimately heading for the decoy balloon and possibly striking the dummy warhead only by accident. The second test in January 2000 failed because of a sensor coolant leak. The third intercept test on July 8 failed when the launch vehicle and the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) failed to separate.
On the second issue of whether the system will be operationally-effective, we have very little information to go on. We have not tested the system against targets launched from unanticipated locations, or over the long distances and high speeds at which it must function in an operational environment. In the June 13 report of the Independent Review Team (IRT), retired Air Force General Larry Welch urged the Pentagon to expand the test envelope to better reflect operational conditions.
Finally, the question of reliability is best answered over time and extensive use of the system. Any program in its developing stages will run into technical glitches, and this program has been no different. This doesn't mean the system won't ever work properly, but that we need more time to work the bugs out.
Two independent reviews have reached a similar conclusion about the risks of rushing this system to deployment. In February 1998, the IRT under General Welch characterized the truncated testing program as a "rush to failure." The panel's second report recommended delaying the decision to deploy until 2003 at the earliest to allow key program elements to be fully tested and proven. The most recent Welch report found that meeting the current 2005 deployment target date remains "high risk."
The concerns of the Welch Panel have been reinforced by the Defense Department's office of operational test and evaluation, which in February 2000 decried the "undue pressure" being applied to the NMD testing program. The Coyle Report warned that rushing through testing to meet artificial decision deadlines has "historically resulted in a negative effect on virtually every troubled DoD development program."
My second major concern about this system is whether it offers the most appropriate and effective defense against the likely threat. The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that addressed the ballistic missile threat concluded that the same nations developing long-range ballistic missile systems could develop - or buy - countermeasure technologies by the time they are ready to deploy their missile systems.
An ICBM releases its payload immediately after boost phase, and if that payload consists of more than simply one warhead, an exo-atmospheric interceptor will have more than one target to contend with after boost phase. In his testimony before the Armed Services Committee on June 29, Lt. General Ronald Kadish, Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, admitted that the downside of the proposed mid-course intercept system is that "it is quite easy to generate decoys in this phase."
But while acknowledging that countermeasures pose a "major discrimination challenge," General Kadish also said he is confident the proposed NMD system will be able to successfully discriminate between warheads and the decoys likely to be available when the first phase of the system is deployed. The scientific community has questioned this confidence, concerned that even the fully-equipped, fully-deployed system, functioning effectively and as intended, could be defeated by some relatively simple countermeasures.
The Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a very thorough technical evaluation of three countermeasures that would be particularly well-suited to overwhelming this system: chemical and biological bomblets, anti-simulation decoys, and warhead shrouds.
Chemical and biological weapons are deployed in small submunitions, rather than one large warhead, because doing so allows an attacker to disperse the agent over a larger area to maximize its effect on the targeted population. An attacker would likely pack up to 100 submunitions of chemical or biological agent into each warhead, effectively creating 100 mini-reentry vehicles, each one lethal. And our limited system, intended to have a maximum of 250 interceptors, would have to shoot down every one of those bomblets to avoid catastrophe.
Second, using anti-simulation countermeasures, an attacker could disguise the nuclear warhead to look like a decoy by placing it in a lightweight balloon and releasing it along with a large number of similar, but empty balloons. By painting the balloons with a surface coating or by changing the shape of the balloon so that it is not a perfect sphere, an attacker can use the laws of physics to bring the equilibrium temperature of all the balloons into the same range, making it very difficult - if not impossible - for the radar suite of this system to distinguish between the empty balloons and the balloon containing the warhead. Alternately, by covering the warhead with a shroud cooled by liquid nitrogen, an attacker could reduce the warhead's infrared radiation by a factor of at least one million, making it incredibly difficult for the NMD system's sensors to detect the warhead in time to hit it.
These technologies are not unsophisticated. But I have yet to hear one person explain why a nation with the technological capacity to develop a long-range ballistic missile program should suddenly be considered technologically incompetent when it comes to deploying these relatively straight-forward countermeasures.
The debate over countermeasures raises serious questions about whether this system is the best response to the likely threat. I don't believe it is.
I believe we should focus our research efforts on developing a forward-deployed boost-phase intercept system. Such a system would build on the current technology of the Army's land-based Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Navy's sea-based Theater-Wide Defense systems, to provide forward-deployed defenses against both theater ballistic missile threats and long-range ballistic missiles in their boost phase. This approach could also be more narrowly targeted at specific threats, and it could be used to extend ballistic missile protection to U.S. allies and to our troops in the field.
The key advantage to the mobile, forward-deployed missile defense system is that, rather than having to create an impenetrable umbrella over the entire United States territory, it would only require us to put an impenetrable lid over the much-smaller territory of a potential adversary. The technological challenge of containing North Korea, Iraq or Iran is much more manageable than the challenge of defending half a continent.
And a system targeted at specific threats would be much less destabilizing than a system designed only to protect U.S. soil. It would reassure Russia that we do not intend to undermine its nuclear deterrent and enable Russia and the U.S. to continue to reduce our strategic arsenals. It would reassure U.S. allies that they will not be left vulnerable to these missile threats and that they need not consider deploying nuclear deterrents of their own. In short, this alternative approach could do what the proposed NMD system will not: it could make us safer.
We do not now have the technology to deploy a boost-phase system. Without much faster intercept missiles than are currently available, the Navy Theater-Wide system will not be able stop high-speed ICBMs, even in their relatively slow boost phase. The THAAD system, which continues to face considerable challenges in its demonstration and testing phases, is being designed to stop ballistic missiles, but it has not been tested against targets with speeds approaching those of an ICBM.
Secretary Cohen has argued that we should not pursue the boost-phase technology, because it can not be ready in time to meet the 2005 IOC deadline. Given the challenges we are facing with the current NMD system, and the technological and strategic advantages of the boost-phase system, I believe we can afford to take the time to explore the full range of options before us. The decision on whether and how to deploy a U.S. national missile defense is too important to rush.
©1995 - 2021, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.