WASHINGTON — While the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is being forced to answer questions about the viability of its homeland missile defense program after a third failed intercept test in five years, the Pentagon is quickly moving forward with deployments of key radar and missile defense systems to Japan, Guam, Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
The deployments come in response to threats from North Korea and instability in Syria, as well as a hedge against the possibility of conflict with Iran as the US attempts to assist allies in handling some of these potential threats on their own.
It’s widely estimated that there are about 6,300 ballistic missiles outside of US, Russian and Chinese control, a number that MDA expects to climb to almost 8,000 by 2020.
As the recent interrupted shipment of Cuban missile parts headed for North Korea by Panamanian authorities showed, the secretive Kim family dictatorship remains a major worry for allies in the Pacific region, including the United States.
As a show of resolve against Pyongyang, in March the United States announced it was sending a forward-based AN/TPY-2 radar to Japan to complement the one that the island nation already operates.
The move was only one of several that the Obama administration has undertaken in recent months to shore up the missile defense capabilities of allies in the Pacific and the Middle East.
About 100 US soldiers deployed to Guam in the western Pacific this past spring to operate the truck-mounted Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) anti-missile system as a further hedge against potential North Korean hostilities.
Elsewhere, NATO already operates six Patriot missile batteries in Turkey with two of those manned by US soldiers, and in June the US announced it would keep a Patriot battery in Jordan that had deployed to the country for a long-planned military exercise.
The deployment of the TPY-2 radar to Japan brings up a thorny subject for the Pentagon, however, since 2013 budget cuts slashed the planned number of radar buys from 18 to 11.
The Army has already received eight radars from Raytheon, but the Pentagon has been using one as a kind of “floating” training asset in the Pacific region. When the upcoming Japan deployment was announced in March, a Pentagon spokesperson told Defense News that the radar in question “is a non-deployed AN/TPY-2 radar within the current inventory,” but would not comment on whether the Japan-bound radar would be that training asset or would be taken from an existing THAAD battery.
A Defense Department spokesman said July 18 that the department would “not discuss the movement or missions of that platform.”
Raytheon’s director of missile defense, Jim Bedingfield, told Defense News that with the eight radars delivered, and the final three in production plus a foreign military sale (which has been reported elsewhere as for the United Arab Emirates), the line is hot at the moment, allowing the company to deliver a cooling equipment unit for the AN/TPY-2 more than 14 months early.
The delivery of the system, announced July 17, plus a $62 million fiscal 2014 request for other components to modernize deployed radars, will keep the production line running, though without additional orders there remains the possibility of production ending in 2015, Bedingfield said.
While this outer ring of defenses can be counted as a success for the MDA and for the Pentagon’s strategy of building global partnerships, the continued failures of the homeland-based Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system raises serious red flags about the missile defense enterprise.
The latest failure on July 5 was the first shot the MDA had taken since 2008, a five-year lull that agency director Vice Adm. James Syring told a Senate panel July 17 simply can’t happen again.
“We cannot wait another four and a half to five years to test again,” he insisted.
But while he wants to get right back at it, questions remain about what the schedule might be and which technologies will be tested and if the government has been in too much of a rush to field untested systems.
The two technologies in question, both manufactured by Raytheon, are the older Capability Enhancement-I (CE-I) kill vehicle — which had performed well until its failed July 5 test — and the newer CE-II kill vehicle, which failed its only two tests in 2010.
The kill vehicles are designed to detach from their booster rockets before striking the incoming missile, though Syring confirmed that the latest failure was due to the kill vehicle failing to detach. He added that his shop is working with industry to continue its investigation into the mishap.
Syring’s desire to get back at it was echoed earlier in the day by James Miller, the undersecretary of defense for policy, who told a July 17 Washington breakfast meeting that the MDA is still weighing when to test the CE-1 again, specifically whether it “should precede or follow” the upcoming March 2014 test of the CE-II.
Whichever comes first, Miller said he “would like to see a test of both versions certainly within the next 12 months, preferably in less than that.”
During Syring’s appearance before the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., complained that even after spending $150 billion on missile defense over the past three decades, the US government still failed its last three tests.
“There are still serious questions whether or not we have a missile defense system that can protect America against threats that we believe could be coming our way,” Durbin said. “This committee and Congress are being asked by some to expand the amount of money we spend on the systems at a time when testing has not proven that test systems are effective.”