Debate Persists Over Effectiveness of Ground-Based Missile Defenses

Experts continue to disagree over whether a missile defense system deployed in Alaska and California could shoot down a long-range ballistic missile from North Korea or Iran, the Anchorage Daily News reported Saturday (see GSN, June 29).

"The bottom line is that the system deployed in Alaska and in California will not work in the real world," Stephen Young, an expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.

"The combat commanders have high confidence in being able to handle anything from North Korea," countered Riki Ellison, head of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

Fort Greely in Alaska is set to house a total of 26 GMD interceptors, with four more being deployed at

Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Another 14 of the $65 million weapons would be used for testing or as backups to the silo-based interceptors.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) questioned the Obama administration's plan to cut back the number of interceptors in her state (see GSN, May 22). The move came as the Defense Department proposed to cut missile defense spending by more than $1 billion and focus on short- and medium-range missile threats.

"Under the Bush administration the plan was 40 interceptors there at Greely, and it had been stated that that was what really was required," Murkowski told the newspaper. "You have a new administration, but you still have the same secretary of defense who said in the Bush administration that 40 was the magic number, and now the operational number is 26 or 27. It begs the question, what has changed? This threat, we would all agree, has not changed -- in fact, North Korea is even being more threatening than they have been in the past" (see GSN, July 20).

"I don't see an argument why we shouldn't go to the 44" interceptors, added Baker Spring, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation. U.S. strategy had previously assumed that 14 interceptors were needed to protect the United States from Iran and 30 were needed for North Korea, he said.

Pyongyang, though, is unlikely to launch a ballistic missile attack on the United States, said Frederick Lamb, a University of Illinois physics professor who helped prepare a 2004 missile defense study.

"It's important to keep in mind that there are two components to a threat: intent and capability," Lamb stated by e-mail. "Even though North Korea is making threatening statements, the U.S. intelligence community's assessment is that a ballistic missile launch from North Korea against the United States is one of the least likely nuclear threats to the United States, far down the list compared to an attack by nuclear terrorists, for example."

Tests of North Korean long-range missile technology to date have been "catastrophic failures," Lamb stated.

The U.S. interceptor system still faces various technical shortcomings, added Philip Coyle, a former Defense Department testing and evaluation director who now works at the World Security Institute in Washington.

"The Missile Defense Agency has not been able to explore the various issues that the system faces," Coyle said.

It is uncertain whether an interceptor's infrared detection equipment could spot a target's heat signature in cooler conditions, he argued: "They've never done a test at night. If the sun isn't shining on the targets, they're cooler."

The system since 1999 has conducted eight successful intercepts in 14 tries, the Daily News reported. The target was destroyed in the most recent test, on Dec. 5; however, its decoys had not deployed, so the event was considered only a partial success.

Another intercept drill is scheduled for September or October, according to Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner.

"It's not something you'd want to have to rely on," Coyle said. "These tests are scripted, they're planned so that everything that can be done is done to make sure they're successful. If so far you've only done eight of 14 under fairly idealized conditions, what would it be under the fog of war? Obviously it would be worse." (Richard Mauer, Anchorage Daily News, July 18).

July 21, 2009
About

Experts continue to disagree over whether a missile defense system deployed in Alaska and California could shoot down a long-range ballistic missile from North Korea or Iran, the Anchorage Daily News reported Saturday (see GSN, June 29).