Missile defense system called far from ready

The long-range ballistic missile defense system President Bush has ordered operational by October will be less than adequate for effective operation, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee said recently.

In a phone interview with Global Security Newswire last month, Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., said several crucial elements of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system would not be fielded on time because they have not achieved sufficient technological development.

"We don't have the essential components yet in hand of a ground-based system," he said.

In December 2002 Bush directed the military to deploy an initial missile defense capability by October 2004, which would include six missile interceptors in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. While it appears that the interceptors are on track to be fielded by the deadline, the Missile Defense Agency has indicated that other system components will not be ready and that alternatives will be used.

"They'll deploy something in Alaska and claim it's a protective system, but where's the X-band radar? Where are those crucial systems for detection, tracking, and discrimination" of enemy missiles and warheads, Spratt asked.

"You can put something out there and you can claim we can do it with [existing missile detection sensors] and you can claim its adequate for the threat that we're facing, but it's a long way from what everybody thought was necessary for a minimal system," he said.

Spratt said that U.S. efforts to develop new space-based infrared systems (SBIRS) for target detecting and tracking have "got lots of problems to work out."

"We aren't there yet, I don't think, with the adequacy of detection and the tracking that we need," he said.

For the scheduled initial operations, the system is expected to use Defense Support Program satellites already operating for early warning missions. The agency plans to put the first two Space Tracking and Surveillance Systems, formerly known as SBIRS-Low, into space around 2007 to participate in testing.

The difference between the Defense Support Program satellites and STSS satellites is "orders of magnitude," said John Pike of Globalsecurity.org.

Defense Support Program satellites "basically lose the target after burnout," he said.

Spratt also said he was aware of "real problems" with a missile interceptor booster rocket under development by Lockheed Martin to replace a temporary booster that has been used in testing. Two boosters are being developed, the other by Orbital Sciences.

The Orbital booster, expected to be used in the initial fielding, is scheduled for its first integrated flight test early this year, while the Lockheed booster is scheduled for that testing in fiscal 2005, Aerospace Daily reported Thursday.

Spratt also expressed concern that added thrust provided by the new boosters might challenge the mechanism that joins the booster to the interceptor's kill vehicle.

Spratt called the existing Cobra Dane radar that will be used for closely tracking enemy warheads in space a "poor substitute" for the X-band radar under development, adding, "it faces the wrong way."

A General Accounting Office report in September (a href=http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d03441.pdf>GAO-03-441) said the Cobra Dane radar, operating for other missions, had not been tested in a "relevant flight environment" and that there are no plans for using it in an integrated flight test through fiscal 2007.

The Missile Defense Agency also faces challenges from its decision to base the X-Band radar at sea, on a platform possibly stationed on the North Pacific, according to Spratt.

GAO said the radar is scheduled for completion in 2005 but lacks realistic testing in a sea-based environment. It said severe wind and sea conditions "may affect the radar's functionality" and said the radar might be so tested by October 2006.

"I think we're a long way from having a truly up-and-ready ballistic missile defense system," Spratt said.

Spratt said development of the sea-based boost-phase missile system the administration also plans to field in 2005 is in its early stages and could prove an extremely difficult task.

A fundamental challenge to the concept, he said, is posed by the possibility of an enemy firing an ICBM away from the sea-based interceptor. For example, North Korea could choose to launch a missile over China instead of the Sea of Japan.

"A boost-phase system requires that you be able to locate your missile intercept system very close to its intended target. However, if this system is coming out of China and much of its trajectory is coming over land, a boost-phase system simply cannot get there in time," he said.

Spratt dismissed efforts to develop a space-based interception capability, saying an adversary could disable it too easily.

"The problem you've got for space-based systems is any country that can build a ballistic missile can build an [antisatellite system]," he said.

Despite Spratt's concerns, he praised Missile Defense Agency Director Gen. Ronald Kadish for managing the pressures of the job.

"Kadish has got a tough job and I respect the job he's done of trying to keep it on a level track," he said.