The U.S. missile defence boondoggle

A recent report criticizing the United States' approach to missile defence serves as a warning for countries considering collaboration on the system.

By: /
August 4, 2016
The Missile Defense Agency conducts the first intercept flight test of a land-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense weapon system from the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Test Complex in Kauai, Hawaii, December 10, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Missile Defense Agency/Leah Garton/Handout via Reuters

The pungent American-originated term “boondoggle” can be defined as "a project that is considered a useless waste of time and money yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations.”  It is a fitting word to describe the 15-year exercise undertaken by the United States to provide a ballistic missile defence for that country.

A report issued in July by the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous US Approach to Strategic Missile Defense details the immense costs both financial and in capability resulting from the decision to proceed with this military project without the usual safeguards that govern major weapon procurement in the U.S.

Ostensibly to counter an inter-continental ballistic missile threat from a ‘rogue’ state that has not materialized, the report lays out how the Bush Administration’s 2002 decision to rush deployment of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system has had serious and continuing consequences. In particular, the decision to exempt this complex undertaking from the normal acquisition rules has led to an expenditure of over US$40 billion and the fielding of a system that “has no demonstrated ability to stop an incoming missile under real-world conditions.”

The poor test record of the 30 GMD interceptors fielded to date has underlined the problems encountered when complex weapon systems are not subjected to rigorous testing prior to acquisition and deployment to ensure that they actually perform as specified. The majority of the fielded interceptors use a “kill vehicle” (the payload of the interceptor missile that is supposed to collide with an incoming warhead and destroy it) that has only been successful twice in four tries. Other interceptors are equipped with a follow-on vehicle that has only had one successful test in three tries. None of these tests have been conducted under realistic operating conditions.  

This abysmal testing record has not deterred the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) from deciding to deploy a further 14 interceptors, despite its inability to confirm that any of these systems will perform as required. Instead of increasing the number and sophistication of the tests to better determine the actual effectiveness of the GMD system, the pace of testing has slowed down. As the report notes: “The MDA has conducted only nine GMD intercept tests since it declared an initial operating capability in 2004, and only three of the nine – one-third – were successes.”  

Without the benefit of accurate measures of effectiveness, it is impossible to make rational decisions as to the operational role of the system (e.g. one would need twice as many interceptors with a 50 percent effectiveness rating than would be required if the interceptors had a 75 percent effectiveness).  The current rate of one test per year is in sharp contrast to the six flight tests per year of the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile a mainstay of the U.S. strategic arsenal. The report observes, “There is no reason that a system intended to protect against nuclear weapons should not be held to the same standards as a system intended to deliver them.”

Having turned the usual procurement procedures on their head, the U.S. has persisted with an acquisition program that is driven by imposed timetables rather than by the technical maturity of the systems as confirmed by rigorous testing. One might think that this abuse of public funds on a leading military program would have incurred the wrath of Congress. Unfortunately, as the report discreetly alludes to, Congress is part of the problem. Its failure to provide appropriate oversight and the eagerness of representatives to gain some of the “pork” from this multi-billion dollar project for their districts has led to Congress “adding its own unnecessary or unvetted projects to the missile defense budget.”

The lack of accountability and transparency in the missile defence program and the failure to provide for an independent oversight authority on MDA activity has resulted in a “GMD system [that] is simply unable to protect the U.S. public, and is not on a credible path to be able to do so.”  

The UCS report makes disturbing reading for anyone who believes in “value for money” procurement practices and the integrity of the national security establishment. It should also serve as a cautionary tale for Canada and those of its politicians and citizens who express a desire to partner with the U.S. on strategic missile defence and share in its “benefits.”