New missile defense director vows more secrecy

More of the program will become classified as it resumes major flight testing after a two-year hiatus.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has criticized the administration's decision to cancel nine scheduled flight tests shortly after Bush's 2002 deployment decision.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency in the future will be more secretive about aspects of its national missile defense program as it resumes major flight testing after a two-year hiatus, its new director said in a presentation in Washington Tuesday.

"As we proceed in the future, you'll see more of the program becoming classified," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, who became agency director in July following the retirement of Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish.

Obering said officials have an obligation to inform U.S. taxpayers about their investment in the multibillion-dollar system, but said the agency seeks to avoid tipping off potential enemies about weaknesses in the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.

"Aspects that anyone can glean a vulnerability or a definite determination of capability of the system [are] something that we want to protect," he said.

President Bush has directed the deployment of some components of the system, including as many as six interceptor missiles, by the end of the year, and up to 20 missiles total are scheduled for deployment by 2006.

Critics have argued the agency is already too secretive, concealing from Congress and the public information regarding developmental progress, future deployment plans and costs, and testing to determine whether the system can or will ever work.

"This was an unwise move that eliminated the very tests that must be conducted to show whether the system is effective," according to a statement on his Web site.

"The system has also not been tested against realistic decoy balloons that any potential enemy might be expected to deploy. Fielding a system regardless of whether it is effective will not contribute much to the security of our country, and risks wasting billions of dollars on something that doesn't work," it says.

In pursuit of greater oversight, Congress this month passed legislation requiring an operationally realistic test of the system by next October as well as the establishment of cost, schedule, and performance baselines for each two-year developmental phase of the system.

Obering said the agency has "done the stand-down now for two years" of flight testing the system's available components, but said he is planning "at least three flight tests per year over the next several years" and that those tests would be "increasingly challenging."

The first such test, after multiple delays this year, is scheduled for early December, he said.

Obering's presentation, arranged by the nonprofit Marshall Institute, addressed a number of criticisms, including that missile defense is being deployed for political reasons, that it will not be effective against a North Korean threat, and that "we're not going to have a public debate over whether the system works."

He denied any political pressure to deploy the system, noting the decision to deploy components of a Ground-based Midcourse Defense system by the end of 2004 was made by Bush in December 2002.

"I will stand here and tell you this, I have not received one phone call, one message, one pressure from anybody to deploy this system before any time [or] date. … It has always been an event driven program," he said.

Obering said the agency was confident, based on testing so far and on threat expectations, that the components of the system would provide an effective defense against a near-term North Korean long-range missile launch.

"North Korea is a closed society -- but [with what] we can ascertain, what we believe -- we feel confident that this system will provide us more than just a rudimentary capability against that threat," he said.

Obering said he could not say how much the national missile defense system might cost over its lifetime because the government has chosen not to decide on a fixed architecture indicating what it might look like.

Addressing the criticism that the agency has been unwilling to have a public debate over that supposed capability, Obering said he anticipates greater restrictions on information in the future.

He said, for instance, that the agency would not specify the flight test schedule and "would not go into details" on the types of targets and countermeasures the system would face in testing.

"We're not trying to hide things with respect to the American public. What we're trying to say is we have to take a really hard look at this now in terms of an operational capability in the future, of what we need to protect in terms of critical information," he said.