Policy Official Pushes U.S. Missile Defenders to Improve Test Realism

(Mar. 24) -Critics of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, shown in a December test, have said the Pentagon's testing program has not been realistic enough (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).
(Mar. 24) -Critics of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, shown in a December test, have said the Pentagon's testing program has not been realistic enough (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).

WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. defense policy official said yesterday he wants to see more realistic tests of the emerging missile defense system (see GSN, Feb. 26).

"Generally speaking, the complaint is that most of our tests are not realistic and don't simulate actual ... conditions," Peter Verga, the acting deputy defense policy head, said at a conference held by the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency. "I think anything the test community can do to reassure people that the tests are, in fact, operationally realistic is very important."

Critics have said that missile defense tests thus far have largely failed to capture the element of a surprise launch under conditions that might particularly stress the system's capability to intercept an enemy rocket.

Philip Coyle, a former top Pentagon test official, questioned the confidence expressed recently by U.S. combatant commanders that the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system could intercept a possible early April North Korean ballistic missile test launch if it threatens the United States. Pyongyang has said it plans only to launch a satellite, but Western analysts remain wary.

"What if North Korea launched their test missile at night or in bad weather or when the sun is shining at a disadvantageous direction?" said Coyle, speaking later at the same conference. "The MDA testing program has fallen far behind in addressing such issues."

In fact, he added, "with these examples I'm not even talking about testing for statistical confidence. ... I'm talking about even doing one good test."

Verga urged missile defense testers to act on such concerns.

"To the extent that you can build into the test scenarios ... a little bit of lack of clarity on the part of the shooters of when the launch is actually going to take place ... that builds greater confidence in people," he said. "The fact that it was the real crew [performing the test], and not the real crew backed up by several hundred contractors looking over your shoulder and making sure everything was ready, etc. Realistic operational testing is what I would recommend to you."

Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, the MDA director, plans to conclude by May a thorough review of the agency's test plans. Congressional auditors have said the test program has exhibited performance shortfalls and delays across the board.

O'Reilly has acknowledged some serious challenges. However, he said yesterday, "Overall, we've had a very successful start to a rigorous test program."

Also speaking at the forum, Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) raised questions about the need for a planned missile defenses in Europe.

The influential lawmaker, tapped by the Obama administration for a top State Department arms control post, said it is "simply not right" to justify long-range missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic based on a threat from Iran. To date, she noted, the Persian Gulf nation has developed only short- and medium-range missiles.

"Iran has not developed a long-range missile capable of reaching the United States yet," said Tauscher, who leads the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. "If Iran were to do so in the future, the [ground-based] interceptors currently based at Fort Greely, Alaska, should have the capability to protect the United States continent."

She suggested instead that the United States and its allies focus on defenses against the shorter-range missiles, which she said pose a threat that interceptors based in Poland would have "little if any" capability to hit.

"Before we move to expand the GMD system, we need a little common sense," Tauscher said. "That is to say, more of a first-things-first approach."

March 24, 2009
About

WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. defense policy official said yesterday he wants to see more realistic tests of the emerging missile defense system (see GSN, Feb. 26).