Los Angeles Times on the state of the US missile defense

Los Angeles Times on the state of the US missile defense
Los Angeles Times on the state of the US missile defense

On June 23, the United States conducted another test launch as part of the creation of its GMD (Ground-based Midcourse Defense system) missile defense system. It is reported that a GBI (Ground-Based Interceptor) interceptor missile successfully located a training target and destroyed it. This was the first successful test intercept since 2008. After six years of work on fine-tuning the systems, Boeing specialists again managed to intercept the conditional target. This test launch can be considered an achievement for the American defense industry, but it was preceded by several setbacks. Moreover, the US missile defense program throughout its existence has regularly faced various difficulties and criticism. First of all, opponents are attacked by the high cost of the program and the absence of any serious results a decade after its launch.


A few days before the last successful tests, on June 15, the American edition of the Los Angeles Times published an article by journalist David Willman with a loud headline $ 40-billion missile defense system proves unreliable. As the name implies, the author of the publication summed up the interim results of many years of work of several large companies, and these results cannot be considered positive even in the light of the tests that took place eight days after the article was published.

At the beginning of his review of the situation, D. Willman recalled previous tests of the American missile defense system. He recalled how, on January 31, 2010, a GBI interceptor rocket, belching flame, took off from the Vanderberg base (California) and headed for a fictitious target. The testers knew the exact time of launching the target rocket, its speed, flight path and other parameters. Based on these data, the interceptor's flight path was developed. Within a few minutes, the missile accelerated to a speed of 4 miles per second and headed towards the target. The anti-missile missile missed the target. The trials, worth about $ 200 million, ended in failure.

After 11 months, the ABM Agency conducted new tests, which also did not end with the destruction of the conditional target. The next unsuccessful launch of an experienced interceptor missile took place on July 5, 2013.

The GMD missile defense program is being developed to protect the United States from threats from "rogue states" such as Iran or North Korea. However, the LA Times journalist sums up, 10 years after commissioning and an investment of $ 40 billion, the United States still cannot rely on its new missile defense shield, which is not yet able to work effectively even under predetermined test scenarios. So, in recent years, the ABM Agency has conducted 16 tests of antimissiles, half of which ended in a successful interception of a training target.

According to D. Willman, despite all the contractors' promises to correct shortcomings soon, the effectiveness of the GMD complex only decreases when compared with the tests of 1999-2004. After the introduction of the missile defense system into operation in 2004, eight tests were carried out, but only three of the anti-missile missile completed the task. The last successful interception (as of the time the article was published in the LA Times) took place on December 5, 2008.

The active deployment of components of the GMD system started in 2002 after the corresponding order of US President George W. Bush. This haste has affected the efficiency of the system. D. Willman refers to an unnamed senior military official who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. This Pentagon official claims that the existing missile defense system is still unreliable, and in 2004, an actual prototype of the complex was accepted into operation. This was done solely for political reasons. At that moment, the specialists did not know what needed to be finalized or changed, and their only task was to build the elements of the system.


The LA Times article also cites the words of another expert. Dean A. Wilkening of Livermore National Laboratory, speaking at a recent conference, called the GMD system a prototype and noted that its condition is worse than anyone could have hoped. In addition, Wilkening warned everyone about the possible consequences: if the GMD system in its current state is planned to be used in practice, then one should not be surprised if the unsuccessful outcome exceeds all negative expectations. In another talk, Dean A. Wilkening described the test results in one word: abysmal.

Apparently, in their previous statements, US officials have seriously overestimated the capabilities of the missile defense system. So, at meetings in Congress, Pentagon representatives regularly said that no more than three interceptor missiles would be required to defeat one enemy warhead. In 2003, Undersecretary of Defense Edward S. Aldridge, Jr. argued that the GMD system would be as efficient as 90%. In 2007, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, Chief of the US Northern Command, spoke to the Senate. He spoke with great confidence about the high effectiveness of the anti-missile system.

However, now the author of the publication of the $ 40-billion missile defense system proves unreliable disagrees with the officials' predictions. He believes that the test results do not allow us to speak about the high efficiency of the built missile defense system. According to available forecasts, to defeat one enemy warhead, the GMD system will have to launch up to 4-5 GBI missiles. The system currently has 30 interceptor missiles (4 at Vanderberg and 26 at Fort Greeley, Alaska). This means that only a few enemy missiles are capable of overloading the GMD complex, forcing it to use up all anti-missile missiles on duty, and literally pierce the anti-missile shield. The probability of breaking through the defense increases if the enemy missile carries false targets that can divert the interceptor missiles.

Despite the existing problems, influential forces continue to insist on the construction of new facilities, including silos for interceptor missiles. Several leading US enterprises are interested in multi-billion dollar contracts. So, Boeing develops and builds missile defense facilities, and Raytheon produces kinetic interceptors for interceptors. Several thousand jobs in five states depend directly or indirectly on the GMD program.

D. Willman recalls that initially the administration of the current President Barack Obama spoke of maintaining the number of interceptor missiles at the current level. However, it is now proposed to increase the number of GBI missiles on duty. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is proposing to deploy an additional 14 interceptor missiles by 2017.

The LA Times journalist was unable to get a comment from the ABM Agency, so he had to quote the organization's press service. Currently, the Agency, according to official information, is testing various systems and working to improve the reliability of the entire complex. The head of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral James D. Searing, recently spoke to a Senate subcommittee and said that the reasons for the last two failed launches have already been determined. The discovered deficiencies of the systems will be corrected by the end of the year.

The author of the article "The missile defense system worth $ 40 billion has shown its unreliability" recalled some of the features of the GMD project. North Korean or Iranian ballistic missiles must fly to targets in the United States along the shortest route - crossing the Arctic Circle. It is proposed to destroy them approximately in the middle of the route, which is why the term Midcourse appears in the name of the system. Intercepting a ballistic missile in this way is an extremely difficult task, which can be compared to trying to hit one bullet into another.

The "bullet" of the GBI missile is the EKV module (Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle), 1.5 meters long and weighing 68 kg. The EKV module is launched by a rocket into the extra-atmospheric space, where it independently aims at the attacked warhead and strikes it by a direct collision. The EKV kinetic interceptor contains about a thousand parts, and the failure of each of them can disrupt the entire interception costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

D. Willman recalls that the main concept in the defense and aerospace industries was previously the idea of Fly, then buy, according to which customers had to wait for the completion of tests. In the case of the GMD system, the US leadership decided to use the opposite principle: "Buy then fly." Moreover, in the early 2000s, the then US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, released the ABM Agency from all standard procurement and tender procedures. The agency was able to quickly purchase everything it needs and carry out the necessary work.

At the time of the official launch of the missile defense system, the EKV modules of the GBI interceptor missiles were not ready for testing. The first test launch using the prototype EKV took place only in September 2006 - i.e. two years after the start of the deployment of the GMD system. Another problem with trans-atmospheric interceptors is the manufacturing approach. Manual assembly makes EKV modules different, and fixing one such product in tests does not solve problems with others. Increasing production rates will only worsen this situation.

According to D. Willman, about a third of the EKV modules of GBI missiles (their exact number is unknown) currently on duty belong to a modification that failed tests in 2010. At the same time, according to the information of unnamed specialists related to the project, they still cannot intercept targets. Finally, determining the reasons for the failure is difficult due to the fact that experienced interceptors burn up in the atmosphere or fall into the ocean. Some problems can be associated with malfunctions in the control systems of the EKV module, which, in turn, are caused by vibrations during the flight of the interceptor missile.

Remediation of existing deficiencies may take several years, although there have already been some successes. According to the ABM Agency, in January 2013, a test launch of a GBI rocket was carried out, during which no vibrations interfering with the operation of the systems were observed. However, experts are still forced to admit that the manual assembly of EKV modules does not allow a single test to be considered a confirmation of the effectiveness of all interceptors, including in real interception conditions.

Over the past few years, various components of the GMD anti-missile system have shown their capabilities, as well as demonstrated the existing shortcomings. This year marks 10 years since the official launch of the GBI system and missiles. Nevertheless, even now, after an investment of about $ 40 billion, the anti-missile system does not meet the customer's requirements and is almost unable to fulfill its task in real-life use against enemy ballistic missiles.

This means that the Pentagon and the ABM Agency will have to continue work on fine-tuning and improving the GMD system, and Congress will be forced to add new items of expenditure for the development of the project to the budget. Thus, it can be assumed that David Willman's article "The $ 40 billion missile defense system has shown its unreliability" will not be the last publication describing the problems of the ABM Agency and its projects.

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