Missile Defense Success Questioned


Ben Preston
Santa Barbara Independent
December 21, 2008

Tasked with protecting the United States from missile threats, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) — a direct descendent of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative — has come under intense criticism from groups claiming that the cost of such a service isn’t justified by the effectiveness of shooting down a missile with another missile. Controversy has also arisen over the role of testing in securing Congressional funding.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a national environmental watchdog organization, brought this issue to the forefront during a December 5 missile launch from Santa Barbara County’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, when the MDA conducted what its representatives deemed a successful interception of a target missile. While the interceptor missile from Vandenberg did hit its target, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement immediately after its completion, stating that the test was not successful due to a lack of realistic circumstances.

efoodsThe target missile was launched from a state-owned complex on Alaska’s Kodiak Island shortly after noon on December 5, followed 15 minutes later by an MDA missile from Vandenberg. According to the MDA, this marks the eighth successful test of a ground-based interceptor of the 14 that have been attempted.

There currently are 21 long-range ground-based midcourse interceptor missiles positioned at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and three at Vandenberg. A tentative agreement with the Polish government proposes erecting 10 more sites within Poland’s borders. Radar stations for the system are located strategically throughout the world, and the Bush administration has been trying to forge an agreement for another one in the Czech Republic. Although the Czech Republic’s upper legislative body approved the plan, it is not yet clear if the lower house will. Meanwhile, Russia has expressed strong objections to the U.S. placing missile defense apparatus in what it considers to be its backyard.

As various nations’ governments hammer out the details of these matters, debate continues over the qualification of success for the December 5 launch in spite of the failure of a planned decoy package from the target missile. “It would have been nice to have them, but the important thing was the intercept,” said the MDA’s public affairs officer Rick Lehner of the decoys. Typically, if a missile were fired at a target, it would deploy one or more active warheads. More advanced systems include decoy warheads to confuse weapons systems attempting to destroy them. Early tests conducted by the MDA included decoy warheads in the form of Mylar balloons, which were deployed with mock warheads from the target missile.

However, questions have been raised about the decoys’ failure, which some say were supposed to be an important part of the test. “The whole point of the test was to hit the target in the presence of decoys,” said Philip Coyle, senior adviser for the Center for Defense Information. Coyle — who served as assistant Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 2001 and directed the Defense Department’s testing and evaluation department — said the MDA’s claim of success in this test was misleading. “They don’t want to have a failure because they don’t want Congress to pull funding,” he said.

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