Strategic Weapons: April 24, 2001


A WAY TO GO FOR MISSILE DEFENSE; Reality is intruding in President Bush's plans for missile defense. He wants something better than the single base of ground-launched interceptors which President Clinton envisioned, but the technology does not exist, nor is it likely to in the next four years. Even the Clinton-designed system is going to take longer than the target in-service date of 2005.

The problem with the ground based interceptors is that they don't work (so far). Given the failures in previous tests, many are calling for a more rigorous testing program (which would cost more and take more time). The problem with the current program is that after each test, the program officials insist on a total evaluation of the failure before another test. This is a good engineering concept, given an unlimited amount of time before the project is needed, although this long schedule runs the risk of completing a system that is already obsolete. What has been suggested is to hold a test every two or three months with the latest available data, even though this means that each test will have to be done with some previous data unprocessed. This has some advantages (it provides more than one datapoint for each failure, and may reveal if multiple problems are confusing the data) but also has some problems (it costs more, some tests are wasted due to unresolved problems, and a larger number of failures may be politically embarrassing even if it ultimately produces a more reliable system).

Bush's options to add a second or third layer to the National Missile Defense system are limited. The most likely is to improve the Navy Theater Wide missile defense concept to provide a strategic version that could intercept missiles in the boost phase. The problem is that nothing for such a system exists. Aegis radar lacks the range to engage strategic missiles shortly after launch. The Standard Missile SM3 lacks enough range or speed and would have to grow considerably larger. An interceptor kill vehicle would also be needed. All of this would take years of development and testing. Even then, a warship-based system has drawbacks. It takes three ships to keep one on station (the other two being in transit, training, or overhaul). Either one or more ships would have to be kept permanently on guard against a missile attack from each likely enemy (a very expensive choice) or they would have to be sent there when a crisis erupts (which would convince an enemy he must launch a surprise attack or forget the whole idea). Another option, the Army Theater High-Altitude Area Defense System, won't resume testing until 2004 and would need a serious upgrade for strategic use.

Another problem is that national and theater missile defense draw their money form the same pot. The thought of pushing harder on National Missile Defense terrifies the teams working on Theater Missile Defense. They fear that they will see their budgets diverted to National Missile Defense. This would be a problem since there currently is a theater-scale threat to US forces (and has been for more than a decade) while any national threat is at least a few years away. The Army expects to deploy the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) this year, but there are serious problems. The PAC-3 system has documented problems with target identification, classification, and discrimination. These problems were encountered under fire during the Gulf War. The older Patriot in use then could identify and hit a SCUD missile. But the modified Iraqi SUCDs broke apart as they plunged to earth. One of the parts contained a warhead, but the Patriot radar could not tell which onrushing item was the warhead and which was a another part of the missile. This was not a major problem with the very inaccurate Iraqi missiles. But a nuclear warhead using decoys would be another matter. The ground equipment for Patriot PAC-3 has been rated "not suitable" due to problems with reliability and maintenance.--Stephen V Cole


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