WASHINGTON — Congress wants answers from the Pentagon about a failed missile interceptor test, and several prominent senators say it should slow efforts to build an East Coast shield.
The Defense Department announced on Friday that a missile interceptor failed to hit a target over the Pacific Ocean, the latest setback for a pricey program that has not had a successful test since George W. Bush occupied the White House.
The missile interceptor was supposed to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and shoot down a ballistic missile launched from a site in the Marshall Islands. It did not, however, and was the latest in a string of failures going back to 2008.
Lawmakers with oversight of the US missile defense program say Pentagon officials owe them some answers.
“I read the story, and I’m looking forward to getting a briefing. I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., chairman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said during a brief interview on Wednesday.
“I don’t think I should until I hear what the Pentagon has to say,” said Udall, whose subcommittee has legislative jurisdiction over the missile defense program’s plans, schedule and budget.
One senior lawmaker with even more power than Udall to impose restrictions on the missile defense program said the failure gives him new worries about America’s ability to shoot down an adversary’s missile.
“I’ve got plenty of concerns about the whole program,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the full Armed Services Committee.
Levin has yet to be briefed by Pentagon officials on the failed test launch.
“But I’ve asked for one,” he told Defense News.
New concerns were not limited to Democratic members, however.
“It has to be reviewed,” said Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “Obviously, that’s a very expensive failure.”
Some key defense-focused lawmakers, however, told Defense News the underlying missile interceptor technology is sound, adding existing interceptors like the Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II) should do the job.
“I don’t think we need to put the brakes on anything,” said House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “We need a missile defense system. Rogue actors, from North Korea to Iran, are developing missiles. We need to improve our missile technology.
“We need to figure out what went wrong and fix it,” Smith said.
Asked if he has confidence the Missile Defense Agency and its private-sector contractors have the expertise to “fix it” given the spate of failed tests since 2008, Smith was confident.
“Absolutely I think they can fix it,” he said. “Just look at the success they’ve had with Iron Dome in Israel. Missile defense technology has improved dramatically.”
SASC Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said the US missile defense technology is sound — despite the run of failed test intercepts.
“I believe we should be entering into more tests,” Inhofe said. “The CE-II [interceptor] is going to be what we have to to rely on.”
Lawmakers said they intend to press the Pentagon for details of what went wrong last week.
“We have to get certain benchmarks,” McCain said, “and we have to review what remedial steps have to be taken.”
While Smith was bullish about the missile-defense program, he told Defense News that Congress and the Pentagon “need to re-look at our options and figure out what the best ones are.”
The Pentagon has around 30 interceptors on the West Coast, and intends to build 14 more in Alaska and California. Collectively, the price tag for erecting and operating those is in the tens of billions of dollars.
And GOP lawmakers in both chambers are fighting hard to secure legislative language that would require the Pentagon to build a missile shield on the East Coast.
“We’re going to study the East Coast,” Udall said. “But we need to finish the West Coast, I think.”
McCain did not rule out slowing efforts to erect the East Coast site.
“It’s too early to tell because we haven’t determined the reason for the failure,” he said on Wednesday.
“I think the East Coast proposal should not proceed until a number of other things have happened,” Levin said. “Number one, until there’s a requirement for it; and number two, until there’s an environmental assessment, which has not yet been made but is required by law.
“So there’s a lot of other reasons to have that proposal meet certain standards before we go ahead with it,” Levin said. “This [failure] is just … on top of all that.”