US President Ronald Reagan first enunciated the requirement for an effective non-nuclear missile defense in March 1983. A series of organizations followed: the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and the current Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
A major objective in establishing an interservice missile defense development organization was to ensure that all the elements produced would be part of an integrated system, thus avoiding the problems of interoperability when components are developed individually and then used in an integrated system.
The three successive organizations were tasked with ensuring interoperability of all the components required for an effective missile defense. Thus it was disturbing to read the comments of Col. Rob Rasch, project manager, Integrated Air and Missile Defense Project Office, at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.
“Nowhere in the current Army architecture is there a way to share information from all of our various sensors and weapons to have better integrated coverage,” (US Army News Service, March 24). Remember, this is 31 years and some $200 billion after the program was initiated.
The initial objectives outlined for an effective missile defense system are unchanged: Defending deployed troops, the US homeland and the territory of friends and allies. These objectives can be achieved only with a capability to intercept missiles of all ranges at all stages of their flight.
Such a system would require either speed-of-light interceptors or space-based kinetic interceptors. The former are still beyond our capability to operate over large distances within the atmosphere, and space basing has proved to be unacceptable politically. Thus developers have concentrated on limited systems capable of coping with small raids of unsophisticated missiles.
The first strategic system deployed was the National Missile Defense (NMD) in Alaska in 2004. This was deployed prematurely after President George W. Bush had withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Then, strong supporters of missile defense suggested the location should be designated a test facility for proving the capabilities of the system. Sadly, no firings have been tried from Alaska and many tests of equivalent missiles from other test sites have been unsuccessful.
Despite this lack of success, efforts are now in hand to deploy assets in Europe to defend allies and supposedly enhance the quality of the NMD. Returning to the claims of Rasch, how will these systems work cooperatively if the various sensors and weapons are not fully integrated?
The identification of warheads as opposed to the broken parts of missiles that accompany warheads in later stages of flight is an essential precursor for interception. An exchange of data among various sensors, the interceptors and the battle management system is needed to identify real targets from decoys.
One of the significant advances in the current concept of US missile defense is the use of multiple sensors to detect and track hostile systems. These sensors use different wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from infrared through to microwave, to identify targets.
The enemy could make warhead discrimination more difficult by adding decoys. These would add weight to the system and could be incorporated only if the decoys can be assembled in a small volume and are not too heavy. A decoy capable of deceiving multiple-wavelength sensing would be much more complex to produce and so much heavier that it would not be worth incorporating. Thus our defense depends on the ability to coordinate the returns of multiple sensors, which is why the claim reported by Rasch is so disturbing.
Although there is a tendency to equate developing nations such as North Korea and Iran as third rate in terms of the quality of threat they pose, this is no longer valid as both information and disaffected individuals become more readily available. Thus we must focus on correcting the deficiencies in the system aspects of missile defense in addition to correcting deficiencies observed in the limited tests that have been conducted.
Articles such as “Maintain Perspective on Missile Defense” (Francis Mahon, Defense News, April 28) and “Finishing the job of perfecting missile defense” (Michael Barrett, Washington Times, April 28), by concentrating solely on the possible need to redesign an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle, present a distorted picture. MDA should return to the drawing board and ensure that the overall system aspects are incorporated into our missile defense.
Orman is chief executive of Orman Associates, a defense and international consultancy, in Rockville, Maryland.