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Key U.S. Brass: Any Failure in Next Missile Defense Test Won't Sink Effort

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

Spectators gather in December 2010 near Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to watch an ultimately unsuccessful test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system's ability to intercept a ballistic missile target. Another intercept test of the system is planned for June. Spectators gather in December 2010 near Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to watch an ultimately unsuccessful test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system's ability to intercept a ballistic missile target. Another intercept test of the system is planned for June. (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo)

A senior U.S. officer says if an upcoming missile-intercept test results in a repeat failure, it still would not likely spell doom for the program.

Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his own best guess is that the planned June test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system will be successful. Were the test deemed a failure, "I don't think it'll be a shot in the head [to the program], but it depends on the failure mode if it were to fail," he said.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system is the country's principal defense against a limited strategic ballistic missile attack. However, the system has not had a successful intercept test, despite repeated attempts, since 2008. After conducting an extensive technical analysis into the reasons behind the recent test failures, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency is planning to put the technology through another intercept trial in June.

"If it is a success, candidly, it will be a very good shot in the arm for the program, and we will resume production on 14 more in-progress missiles," said Winnefeld during a Wednesday conference hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington. He was referring to additional Ground Based Interceptors the Pentagon has ordered placed in Alaska by the end of fiscal 2017 as a countermeasure against the threat of North Korea's nuclear missile program.

"I personally don't think it's going to fail, and I personally think that any failure that does occur, we will get through just as we have in the past," the vice chairman said.

The test will involve a Ground Based Interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and a "target missile" fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, according to MDA spokesman Rick Lehner. A second-generation kill vehicle, the so-called "CE-2" model, will be used in the test. No test date will be provided until five to seven days prior to the planned trial, the spokesman told Global Security Newswire.

The CE-2 vehicle had a successful non-intercept flight test in early 2013.

"The last CE-2 that we fired, admittedly not against a target, but putting it through its paces … was very successful, and I believe it would have hit a target if it was going against one that day," Winnefeld said.

The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system currently comprises 30 GBI missiles deployed in two states -- California and Alaska -- and a supporting network of sensors that gather and relay information about possible strategic ballistic missile threats. Frustrated with the system's recent test failings, a key Senate defense panel moved last week to forbid the Pentagon from purchasing any more antimissile units whose technology has not been proven through testing.

Winnefeld in his remarks pushed back against "the narrative that missile defense needs to be 100 percent effective to be successful, especially when nuclear weapons are involved," which he called "a simplistic argument."

Critics of U.S. missile defense activities point out that the number of nuclear-armed missiles that could strike the United States and its allies vastly outnumbers the number of interceptors available to be launched against them. Skeptics also note that U.S. antimissile systems have an imperfect testing track record.

"No system can achieve perfection," Winnefeld said. "It would be hubris to believe otherwise."

He noted that deterrence against nuclear strikes involves a combination of missile defenses -- albeit an imperfect system that might unwittingly let some weapons sneak through -- and the threat of massive retaliation.

U.S. missile defenses are aimed at injecting "considerable doubt" into the minds of opponents about the ability of their nuclear weapons to achieve a strike, he said. Additionally, with the threat of Washington's nuclear or conventional response, "the enemy knows there will be a significant price to pay with a missile launch against the United States," Winnefeld said.

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