U.S. to Try Again on Missile Defenses as N. Korea Threat Grows

  • Test to shoot down dummy missile expected in first quarter
  • Next U.S. president will see if troubled system is improving

North Korea's Nukes Keep Getting Stronger

The Pentagon’s next test of its ground-based system to destroy missiles aimed at the U.S. is tentatively scheduled for the first quarter of 2017, providing the new president evidence of whether the troubled program could stop the nuclear weapons North Korea threatens to launch.

With North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un escalating his efforts to develop warheads and missiles capable of hitting the U.S. -- along with his vows to use them -- a test failure would confront the next administration with difficult decisions about a system that the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has estimated will cost at least $39 billion.

The planned test in early 2017 to shoot down a dummy target replicating the threat from an intercontinental ballistic missile will be the first since a successful interception in June 2014. And that, in turn, was the first success since a test in 2008, which was followed by two failures in 2010 and an extensive effort to fix flaws with the interceptor’s warhead.

The next test of the Ground-Based Interceptor system managed by Boeing Co. will take advantage of major improvements to the hit-to-kill warhead built by Raytheon Co. and an improved booster from Orbital ATK Inc., Chris Johnson, spokesman for the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency, said in an e-mail.

Real-World Threat

It’s also the first time the U.S. will attempt an intercept using all of the system’s sensors and communications against a target representing the real-world threat that would be posed by an ICBM, Johnson said.

The Missile Defense Agency is working closely with Pentagon testers and the intelligence community “to ensure the threat is accurately represented to the extent possible,” but “target details are classified,” Army Major Roger Cabiness, a spokesman for Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational testing, said in an e-mail.

“The reliability and availability” of the Ground-Based Interceptors that are already deployed at bases in California and Alaska remain low as the agency “continues to discover new failure modes during testing,” Cabiness said.

The U.S. missile defense test will take place in the context of North Korea’s claims that it successfully tested a nuclear device this month that can be placed atop a long-range missile. U.S. Vice Admiral James Syring, head of the Missile Defense Agency, hinted during a budget briefing in February that the target for the defense system’s next test would replicate some projected characteristics of North Korea’s road-mobile KN-08 ICBM.

The North Korean missile is thought by Pentagon officials and intelligence analysts to be capable of hitting parts of the U.S. mainland, although it hasn’t been flight-tested.

While the test target “would be replicating the expected range and speed of an ICBM,” Syring said at the briefing that “we would be more concerned” with whether it replicates the KN-08.

For a look at Clinton, Trump and a Nuclear North Korea, click here.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told an audience in Washington on Sept. 20 that “we have long assessed that the North Koreans have the capability to fit a nuclear weapon in a warhead on a missile.” Clapper singled out the KN-08, “which is judged to be” capable of hitting parts of the U.S.

“Neither the North Koreans or we know if these will actually work” because a full missile system with a warhead, or re-entry vehicle, hasn’t been tested, Clapper said. “But in our business we kind of have to assume the worst.”

Syring and other U.S. officials also have said the KN-08 is the projected threat that’s driving U.S. plans to increase the number of ground interceptors in Alaska and California to 44 by Dec. 31, 2017. Thirty-four are in silos today.

Developing a missile able to destroy a high-flying ICBM is a tougher challenge than repelling incoming short or medium-range tactical missiles, the purpose of the Thaad defense system that the U.S. plans to deploy in South Korea over the objections of China and Russia.

Unresolved Issues

Questions persist about how well the U.S. system to stop an ICBM would work.

The missile defense agency “has demonstrated partial capability” against “small numbers of simple ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea and Iran,” Cabiness, the spokesman for the Pentagon testing office, said in an e-mail. That assessment was based in part on the June 2014 intercept that demonstrated several software fixes and a partially successful non-intercept test this January that showed some improvements with other components.

It’s not possible yet to predict the probability of a successful interception, such as an 80 percent confidence level, Cabiness said. Such a quantitative assessment requires “extensive ground testing” supported by accredited “modeling and simulation,” he said.

Laura Grego, a missile defense analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an e-mail that the answers from the testing office raise “the important question: How good is partial? Or as most people would ask, ‘Does it work?’”

For example, none of the intercept tests since 2010 have used targets representative of actual threats or complex countermeasures, she said. Since its inception, the system “has destroyed its target fewer than half the 17 times it has been tested, and its record is not improving over time,” she said. Since the 2004 deployment decision, “the system has a three-for-nine record,” said Grego, co-author of a July report titled “Shielded From Oversight: The Disastrous U.S. Approach to Strategic Missile Defense.”

Johnson of the Missile Defense Agency said it continues to improve reliability by upgrading interceptors already fielded, by “implementing improvements in new production interceptors,” and by incorporating reliability improvements in future warhead designs.

Asked why the next test will come more than two years after the mid-2014 exercise, Johnson said it’s “aligned with availability” of the new warhead and booster designs “after we completed rigorous ground testing on the new and modified components.”

The agency “constantly demonstrates and evaluates” the system “by conducting complex war-games, ground tests and advanced computer modeling and simulation,” Johnson said.

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