Pentagon Oversells Missile Defense Test

By Tom Z. Collina

Today, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced that it conducted a “successful” intercept test of the Phased Adaptive Approach system to be deployed in Europe starting this year. This test of the SM-3 interceptor might have been considered a significant step toward the deployment an effective missile interceptor system if there were near-term plans to test the system against realistic targets including countermeasures. However, this test did not include countermeasures and MDA has given no indication when or if such tests will take place.

As it has done in the past, MDA is overselling the importance of a single test. In its press release, MDA claimed that “This successful test demonstrated the capability of the first phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) announced by the President in September, 2009.” Let’s be clear: this test did demonstrate that MDA can conduct a complex test using remote radars to shoot down an unrealistic target under highly scripted conditions.  But it did not demonstrate “the capability” of the first phase of EPAA, which has yet to be fully deployed or tested against likely threats.

The first phase of EPAA will involve Aegis BMD ships in the Mediterranean Sea armed with SM-3 IA interceptors to be guided by an AN/TPY-2 radar based in southeast Europe. The first ship was deployed in March, but the radar—initially planned for Turkey—has not been deployed. Until it is, the system’s first phase cannot be completed.

Even once the radar is deployed in Turkey or elsewhere, the system has to be tested against more demanding threats before it can be considered anything close to operational. The United States has to expect that adversaries, such as Iran, will respond to U.S. missile defenses by adding countermeasures, which are simple means to defeat the interceptors, such as decoys. As the U.S. intelligence community noted a decade ago, any nation capable of fielding long-range ballistic missiles can develop effective countermeasures.

Thus, until the EPAA system is tested against simple countermeasures that an adversary could deploy, MDA’s tests simply cannot tell us whether the system would work in the real world. The tests might give some a warm and fuzzy feeling of security, but given the lack of realism it is a false security. And given MDA’s current plan to deploy the first phase of EPAA by the end of this year, it is unlikely that these requirements for a realistic testing program will be met.

We look forward to hearing MDA’s plans for realistic testing of the European system. But if the system is deployed before testing against countermeasures is even conducted, U.S. taxpayers and our European allies might want to take a closer look at what they are getting.

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