Capabilities of U.S. Missile Interceptor Questioned

(May. 18) -The warshipUSS Shilohfires a Standard Missile 3 interceptor in a 2006 test in the Pacific Ocean. A new report raises concerns about the interceptor's ability to destroy enemy warheads (U.S. Navy/Getty Images).
(May. 18) -The warshipUSS Shilohfires a Standard Missile 3 interceptor in a 2006 test in the Pacific Ocean. A new report raises concerns about the interceptor's ability to destroy enemy warheads (U.S. Navy/Getty Images).

A new analysis of the U.S. Standard Missile 3, which rests at the center of the Obama administration's plan for Europe-based missile defenses, determined that the interceptor appears much less successful at destroying incoming warheads than was previously asserted, the New York Times reported today (see GSN, March 23).

The new assessment by physicists and missile defense skeptics Theodore Postol and George Lewis revisited the results of 10 missile interception tests that occurred between 2002 and 2009 and had previously been announced as successful. The study concluded that the ship-based SM-3 was actually truly successful in no more than two tests -- an achievement rate of only 10 to 20 percent compared to the 84 percent overall success rate touted by the Defense Department in its own earlier analysis of the interceptor.

The authors judged a true success to be destroying the warhead on the incoming missile, not merely disrupting its flight path by hitting the much-larger body of the rocket. In most of the tests, the SM-3 was successful at the latter but not the former, they said. This is troublesome because a nuclear-armed missile could still explode after being knocked off course.

In a real-life situation, "the warhead would have not been destroyed, but would have continued toward the target," the physicists concluded.

Postol told the Times that the impact of striking the incoming missile but not its warhead could cause the bomb to undershoot or overshoot its target.

"The system is highly fragile and brittle and will intercept warheads only by accident, if ever," said Postol, a one-time science adviser to the Defense Department.

The Pentagon has asserted that the SM-3 should both intercept and destroy the warhead on a missile.

"The interceptors ram the warhead at a very high closing speed, destroying the target," reads the Missile Defense Agency's description of the interceptor's aims.

The agency stood by the performance record of the SM-3 and said in a prepared statement that the analysis was "flawed, inaccurate and misleading" (Broad/Sanger, New York Times , May 17).

"In each successful intercept test the target missile was destroyed by the Aegis BMD/SM-3 system due to the extreme kinetic energy resulting from the 'hit to kill' intercept. In each instance, the mission objective of 'hit to kill' of the unitary or separating target was achieved," according to the statement (U.S. Defense Department release, May 18).

Missile Defense Agency spokesman Richard Lehner said the SM-3 was "attaining test scores that many other Defense Department programs aspire to attain."

Still, the Defense Department acknowledged that four of the 10 studied tests did not involve any dummy warheads. It also did not touch significantly on the matter of whether hitting the missile body during testing was enough to claim success, according to the Times.

Lehner said the incoming missiles involved in the tests broke apart after they were struck by the SM-3 and so their warheads would have been destroyed. Sensor data proves "conclusively" that the fake warheads "were destroyed and were no longer a threat," he said by e-mail.

In the past, intercepting incoming missiles had been viewed as tremendously difficult, but improvements in technology have made that goal increasingly feasible, proponents say. Unlike the land-based interceptors of the Bush administration, the SM-3 is comparatively smaller, easier to field and considered more reliable.

The Obama administration plans over a period of years to deploy land- and sea-based variants of the SM-3 in and around Europe as a defense against Iranian short- and medium-range missiles.

The political fallout from the study remains to be seen. Democrats, who have typically questioned missile defense activities, have for the most part stayed quiet over President Barack Obama's touting of new systems intended primarily for dealing with shorter-range threats.

Representative John Tierney (D-Mass.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform national security subcommittee, said in a statement that the analysis published in Arms Control Today posed important questions.

"Congress will need to look into them further," Tierney said. "The American people deserve to know about the system’s actual capabilities and have a right to expect that their tax dollars are being spent effectively" (Broad/Sanger, New York Times).

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Prime Minster Sergei Ivanov said a response from the Obama administration to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's offer last month to collaborate in the building of a European missile shield would be known by year's end, RIA Novosti reported today (see GSN, April 27).

Ivanov said Moscow's long-standing suggestion that the United States use radar facilities in southern Russia and Azerbaijan for the system still stood (see GSN, Oct. 6, 2009). That offer was made by then-President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to convince the Bush administration to not field missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic.

"But cooperation needs to be from A to Z: to the end," Ivanov said. "We will assess the threats together, evaluate the risks together, and begin creating a defense system together."

At a NATO ministerial-level conference in Estonia last month, member states agreed to start talks with Moscow on joint missile defense (RIA Novosti, May 18).

May 18, 2010
About

A new analysis of the U.S. Standard Missile 3, which rests at the center of the Obama administration's plan for Europe-based missile defenses, determined that the interceptor appears much less successful at destroying incoming warheads than was previously asserted, the New York Times reported today (see GSN, March 23).