WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s decision to shift $1 billion to a missile-defense system in the United States is raising questions about the still-unproven missile shield’s effectiveness and the threats posed by North Korea and Iran.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that the Pentagon would add 14 land-based interceptors in Alaska in response to threats from North Korea. To pay for that move and develop an advanced warhead, about $1 billion would be shifted from efforts to develop a missile shield in Poland and Romania.
The money would go toward expanding the current arsenal of 30 interceptors the Pentagon has fielded as part of its Ground- Based Midcourse Defense system, which is designed to shoot down long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. The system’s poor test record and history of technical malfunctions have clouded whether it can reliably stop long-range missiles such as the ones that North Korea and Iran are suspected of developing.
At best, the announcement may be a symbolic one to reassure U.S. allies South Korea and Japan that President Barack Obama takes saber-rattling by North Korea seriously, as well as to win some Republican support at home, said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based security research policy group.
“It’s a very smart move politically and diplomatically, but just doesn’t make sense militarily,” Cirincione, who’s based in Washington, said in an interview. “They hit all the right buttons, including sending a strong signal to North Korea and China, reassure allies, please Republicans and generate news headlines.” The “problem is these interceptors don’t work” because they’ve failed in eight out of 16 tests, he said.
Obama, who was faulted by Republicans for cutting missile defense funding to $7.8 billion in 2010 from a $9.3 billion request in the previous year, has increased spending since then on anti-missile systems. In its budget proposal for fiscal 2013, the White House sought $9.7 billion for the programs.
The Pentagon’s move to add to the signature missile defense system took place a week before the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech launching his Strategic Defense Initiative, later ridiculed by critics as “Star Wars.” That space-based project evolved through three administrations into the current ground-based program.
After years of debate when Republicans favored the program and Democrats opposed it, many Democrats have come to accept theater-based, mobile missile-defense platforms as effective.
Pentagon testers and outside scientific specialists, though, have continued to criticize the ground-based system based in Alaska and California.
A report last year by the National Research Council said the system provided an “early but fragile” defense against potential threats from North Korea.
Improving the $34 billion system “will take time, money and careful testing, but unless this is done,” it “will not be able to work against any but the most primitive attacks,” according to the report.
The ground-based system has interceptors built by Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. topped by hit-to-kill warheads from Raytheon Co., headquartered in Waltham, Mass. Chicago-based Boeing manages the $34 billion system, which now has 26 interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The system hasn’t successfully hit a test target since December 2008.
Since the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency began testing the U.S.-based anti-missile system in 1999, the interceptors have struck dummy targets in eight of 16 tests.
The last successful intercept of a target was in December 2008. In 2010, the system failed to hit targets in two tests using a new, more-sophisticated warhead, one in January and the other in December. After those failures, the agency found a flaw in the guidance system of the newest Raytheon-made warhead.
A test to intercept a target is scheduled for later this year to confirm that the guidance flaw has been fixed — an effort that counting the two failed tests, investigations, redesigns and retests is estimated to cost at least $1 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The intercept test of the new Raytheon warhead must be a success in order for the additional 14 interceptors to proceed, Hagel said last week.
The ground-based system “demonstrated a limited capability against a simple threat,” the Pentagon’s top weapons tester Michael Gilmore said in his fiscal 2011 report, which took into account the 2010 failures.
Even the threat from North Korea that the system is intended to meet is neither imminent nor certain, said Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association in Washington.
“Neither North Korea nor Iran poses an imminent threat of deploying nuclear-tipped ICBMs,” said Thielmann, a retired director for proliferation and military affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “If either country actually makes such a move, it will take years before it can acquire a credible capability.”
“If North Korea or Iran is to be deterred in the future from launching a nuclear attack on the United States,” he said, “it will be because their leaders would have no doubt that such an attack would result in the certain end of the regime in Pyongyang or Tehran, not because they assessed that the United States might be able to intercept some of their ICBMs.”
The intelligence community’s annual global threat assessment, presented to Congress last week by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, cited “North Korea’s commitment to develop long-range missile technology that could pose a direct threat” to the U.S. without citing a timeline.
Since the $1 billion shift to the ground-based missile defense system won’t be completed until 2017, and even then only after testing, Hagel’s move may be “purely defensive” to gain time and show support to allies, said Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and now chairman of the Pacific Century Institute, a Chatsworth, California-based policy research group.
“North Korea is doing what it’s doing as a deterrent,” Gregg, who visited and met counterparts in South Korea last week, said in a phone interview. “Their rhetoric is extreme and does not help them and contributes to our tendency to demonize them, but they’re not crazy” and are unlikely to attack the U.S., he said.