Fin­ish­ing job of per­fect­ing mis­sile de­fense

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By J. Michael Bar­rett J. Michael Bar­rett, a for­mer di­rec­tor of strat­egy for the White House Home­land Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, is a prin­ci­pal with the D.C.-based con­sult­ing firm Dili­gent In­no­va­tions.

In Fe­bru­ary, Iran flight-tested two long-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles, omi­nously un­der­min­ing on­go­ing nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions with the West. North Korea is not back­ing off its nu­clear and mis­sile de­vel­op­ments, ei­ther. The Her­mit King­dom re­cently con­ducted a third nu­clear test and has restarted a ma­jor ura­nium-en­rich­ment fa­cil­ity.

More omi­nously, the Her­itage Foun­da­tion states that more than 30 na­tions have bal­lis­tic mis­siles that can strike the United States, its al­lies or Amer­i­can troops sta­tioned abroad while re­cent events in Syria and Crimea demon­strate all too well that in this fast-paced world, the threats can ma­te­ri­al­ize quickly. You must, as they say, “go to war with the mil­i­tary you have.”

Con­se­quently, this is a crit­i­cal mo­ment for de­fend­ing the U.S. role in in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity. Amer­ica and her al­lies must con­tinue to in­vest in mis­sile-de­fense tech­nolo­gies lest one day, an ad­ver­sary feels com­pelled to strike in the be­lief he can deliver a de­ci­sive blow us­ing tech­nolo­gies we can, but choose not to, ef­fec­tively counter.

Our lead­ers have a duty to pro­tect the U.S. home­land from long-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile at­tack. At present, there is just one sys­tem that pro­tects Amer­ica from these threats — the Ground-Based Mid­course De­fense sys­tem. With its si­los of mis­siles based in Alaska and Cal­i­for­nia, the sys­tem is our pre­mier de­fense against a po­ten­tial North Korean nu­clear at­tack and also can help pro­tect our troops sta­tioned over­seas.

Us­ing a com­plex sys­tem of radars, the sys­tem is de­signed to pick up in­com­ing in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles and launch ground-based in­ter­cep­tors in re­sponse. Though the en­tire sys­tem is re­spon­si­ble for tak­ing down a threat, it’s the war­head atop the in­ter­cep­tor, the Exoat­mo­spheric Kill Ve­hi­cle that gar­ners the most at­ten­tion.

The kill ve­hi­cle’s job is to fly into space and strike its tar­get at a clos­ing ve­loc­ity as fast as 22,000 miles per hour. The im­pact from the ve­hi­cle packs enough ki­netic punch to knock out in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles with noth­ing more than skin-to-skin con­tact — a tech­nol­ogy known as “hit to kill.”

This lit­er­ally is rocket sci­ence at its most dif­fi­cult and com­plex.

The Ground-Based Mid­course De­fense sys­tem has per­formed suc­cess­fully in mul­ti­ple tests. How­ever, it has also failed to in­ter­cept in­com­ing mis­siles in oth­ers. The Exoat­mo­spheric Kill Ve­hi­cle gets the bulk of the blame when tests don’t re­sult in in­ter­cept, push­ing some pol­i­cy­mak­ers to sug­gest we go back to the draw­ing board and de­sign an en­tirely new kill ve­hi­cle from scratch. But given the time, cost and per­for­mance con­straints, this is not a suf­fi­cient an­swer.

As Vice Adm. James Syring, di­rec­tor of the na­tional Mis­sile De­fense Agency, re­cently stated, “[The] de­ci­sion was made to field the pro­to­types be­cause some de­fense now is bet­ter than de­fense much later. … [W]e cut short the de­sign cy­cle. And that had risks. And some of those risks are sur­fac­ing in our flight tests now.” He is right, and it is also true that in a con­test where too late means no de­fenses at all, the re­al­ity is that field­ing and con­tin­u­ously im­prov­ing ABM sys­tems is a rea­son­able path.

The rush to de­ploy­ment was sparked by the shock­ing rev­e­la­tion that North Korea had joined the nu­cle­ar­weapons club. At the time, the kill ve­hi­cle was barely be­yond the proof-of-con­cept stage, and yet it was hur­ried into de­ploy­ment. Since then, a lack of fund­ing for re­design and test­ing have left the pro­gram floun­der­ing, with min­i­mal changes im­ple­mented to im­prove the proof-of­con­cept kill ve­hi­cle de­sign over the past 10 years.

It seems that we have fi­nally wo­ken up to a cri­sis of our own cre­ation. Pres­i­dent Obama’s re­cently pro­posed de­fense budget al­lo­cates more than $700 mil­lion to im­prove this crit­i­cal sys­tem, and Vice Adm. Syring has stated that the fund­ing will get the kill ve­hi­cle past the fin­ish line and turn it into a “re­li­able, pro­ducible, qual­ity de­sign that … [paces] the threat to the fu­ture.”

Sig­nif­i­cantly, ex­am­ples abound of de­fense sys­tems that were blighted by tech­no­log­i­cal chal­lenges and test­ing fail­ures in their early stages. That in­cludes the Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fense and Stan­dard Mis­sile sys­tems, both of which are now vi­tal el­e­ments of the Amer­i­can de­fense shield and crit­i­cal to our na­tional se­cu­rity. They each had test­ing is­sues in their first de­vel­op­ment cy­cle and the lux­ury of full and com­plete en­gi­neer­ing and pro­ducibil­ity de­sign up­grades be­fore de­ploy­ment, un­like the Exoat­mo­spheric Kill Ve­hi­cle. We didn’t give up then, and we shouldn’t give up now.

More to the point, the Ground-Based Mid­course De­fense is the only op­er­a­tional sys­tem we have against long-range bal­lis­tic-mis­sile at­tack. The kill ve­hi­cle is fix­able, but like all anti-bal­lis­tic mis­sile ef­forts, it needs mil­i­tary, diplo­matic and tech­no­log­i­cal com­mit­ment from govern­ment and in­dus­try to make it hap­pen.

The only other near-term op­tion would be to leave our cit­i­zens de­fense­less against the rogue and un­pre­dictable na­tions hard at work on the ca­pa­bil­ity to do us harm. That’s no op­tion at all.

A ren­der­ing of the Exoat­mo­spheric Kill Ve­hi­cle

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