Physicists Challenge NRC Findings on Viability of Boost-Phase Intercept

Two prominent physicists and missile defense skeptics are criticizing the conclusion reached by a National Research Council expert committee that it would be inadvisable for the United States to pursue an early missile interception capability, Space News reported on Wednesday.

Writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, George Lewis of Cornell University and Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology knocked what they said were false inferences reached by the NRC panel that future "boost-phase" interceptors would not be fast enough to reach an enemy missile shortly after its takeoff and before its rocket engines had stopped firing. The two also questioned the panel's conclusions about how long it would take future long-range Iranian and North Korean missiles to complete the boost phase of flight.

"The two assumptions we have just described -- an arbitrarily slow interceptor and an unreasonably fast-burning ICBM target-- reduce the ranges at which boost-phase defenses could operate by a factor of three to four," Postol and Lewis wrote. "This totally erroneous set of assumptions is the source of the ...  report’s incorrect conclusion that a boost-phase ballistic missile defense of the United States is not technically achievable."

The two men also criticized the panel's finding that the problem of radars having a difficult time distinguishing actual missiles from dummies or rocket debris could be addressed through certain improvements to the existing Ground-based Midcourse Defense system in the United States. The GMD system is comprised of silo-based long-range interceptors fielded in California and Alaska and an accompanying network of early warning radars.

"The report proposes deploying new X-band radars alongside existing early warning radars in order to address the Midcourse Defense system's inability to discriminate actual warheads from debris or decoys. The new radars proposed … however, are far too small to be able to discriminate between missiles and decoys at the ranges needed," the pair asserted.

Postol and Lewis approvingly noted the report's recommendations for addressing GMD problems with distinguishing targets, but they faulted the panel for not providing concrete details of how such corrective actions could be employed during a response to an actual missile attack.

The physicists contended that the NRC analysis, which was years in the making and ordered by Congress, "cannot serve as a basis for formulating national policy on ballistic missile defense."

They did not specifically take up one of the most significant recommendations of the report -- the establishment of a third GMD interceptor site somewhere on the East Coast, Space News reported.

October 4, 2012
About

Two prominent physicists and missile defense skeptics are criticizing the conclusion reached by a National Research Council expert committee that it would be inadvisable for the United States to pursue an early missile interception capability, Space News reported on Wednesday.

Countries