The days of legitimate debate over the value of missiles defense seem to have faded into history.
The issue has become one of theology. Those involved are either true believers, or heretics. It’s like listening to a church choir, and knowing these folks are singing the high parts, and those over there are singing the lows.
The trend has become especially stark on Capitol Hill. This was on display Wednesday, when Navy Vice Admiral James Syring, the head of the nation’s missile-defense efforts, testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the panel’s chairman, opened up with a series of questions triggered by the July 5 failure of an ground-based interceptor, leaving that system with a 50-50 record in 16 tests. He also said the U.S. has invested $150 billion in missile defenses since President Reagan launched the program 30 years ago, about $14 million a day.
What follows are edited excerpts from the hearing.
Durbin: Is it not true that these failed tests have taken place in a very controlled and scripted environment?…
Syring: Sir, we do test in a controlled, scripted environment based on the amount of time and money each one of these tests costs…And we stand by the results that we’ve obtained. We have obtained three now out of four intercepts with the version that we just flew in July…And our goal is to find out what happened and get back to flight testing as soon as possible…
We cannot stop testing. We must continue to test. We cannot wait another four and half to five years to test again. And my budget has submitted a budget request in ’14 is requesting two GMD [ground-based midcourse defense] flight tests in fiscal year ’14.
Durbin: Is it true or not that the GMD system has not tested — has not been tested against an intercontinental range missile, and no plans for such test have been scheduled until 2015 at the earliest?
Syring: It — sir, it has not been tested against an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile]. It’s been tested against long-range IRBM [intermediate-range ballistic missile], which is the next class down. We’re in the process of manufacturing a target for ICBM testing to begin in ’15, and between now and 2020, there’s eight scheduled ICBM intercept tests.
Durbin: Has the system ever been tested against a tumbling warhead?
Syring: Sir, I — in a classified environment I’d be happy to answer that…
Durbin: Let me ask you this. Of the 30 deployed GMD interceptors, it has been responded that half include obsolete parts, while an additional 10 have been taken off operational status because of a known design flaw.
Syring: We have gone through an extensive upgrade period of the oldest interceptors that were — that were fielded in the early 2000s…I won’t stipulate the number due to classification, but there are a number of GBIs [ground-based interceptors] that are available to the war fighter, but in a lesser readiness condition but still useable by the war fighter.
Durbin: So, Admiral, it comes down to this. Since President Reagan announced this concept 30 years ago and we started making rather substantial investments, there are still serious questions as to whether or not we have a missile defense system that can protect America against threats that we believe could be coming our way from Iran, North Korea or other enemies of our country.
This committee and Congress are being asked by some to expand the amount of money we spend on the systems at a time when testing has not proven that he systems are effective. What is your belief? Is this the time to invest more money in the deployment of these systems?
Syring: The time, sir, is to continue to test and to continue to finish the developments that are underway. And we’re budgeted properly to do that. I won’t say that additional money won’t be required. The budget as it’s current structured has adequate funding…and I remain confident that America is defended today with the readiness of our system.
Durbin: How can we say — how can you say that you’re confident that America can be defended if we’ve never tested our system against an intercontinental ballistic missile?
Syring: We have — sir, we have extensive modeling and simulation capability that projects the results of our conducted intercept testing into the longer-range environment. Speed and distance is important, and as we have a target that’s available for intercept testing starting in 2015, we will actually demonstrate that. But our models and simulation and ground-testing that we have done indicate that we would be successful…
Durbin: You’ve dedicated a major part of your military career to acquisitions. What you’ve described to us is an Aegis system which was developed in a certain way in comparison to a ground missile defense system developed in another way. The net outcome is the Aegis system is reliable, and we count on it to protect our nation.
The ground missile defense system has not reached — not produced that level of confidence. What mistakes were made with the ground missile defense system development that you believe led to this contrast?
Syring: Sir, I would just — I would characterize it more as a — as the schedule-driven pressure to get interceptors in the ground to counter the threat. And the decision to field what were prototypes was made and made for good reason with the theory and the program structured after that to go improve these interceptors, which we’ve been doing…
Durbin: So it seems to me, if I can restate that as I heard it, that deployment schedule was so demanding that there was deployment before development, deployment before proven test when it came to ground missile defense, and that was not the case when it came to Aegis.
Syring: I would agree with that, sir…
Durbin: What troubles me is this is a system that still hasn’t been proven to be able to protect America. And the notion of spending additional billions of dollars at this moment in time, I can understand our goal, it’s a worthy one, to protect our nation, but spending more on weapons that are not proven I don’t believe meets the president’s test of weapons, both proven and cost-effective.
Senator Richard Shelby, R-Ala.: Admiral, let’s go back to the recent test and the failure. Do you believe that the architecture of the whole system is sound in itself?
Syring: Yes, sir, and we proved that in the last test…
Shelby: Was there a mishap dealing with the missile itself?
Syring: I’m sorry, sir, what was the word?
Shelby: What — the missile. In other words, what was the failure? Where did the failure come from at this juncture? I know you’re still analyzing everything.
Syring: What we can say publicly is that the EKV [exoatmospheric kill vehicle], the kill vehicle, did not separate from the third booster.
Shelby: So it was not the power train. You know, it wasn’t the missile?
Syring: It wasn’t — it wasn’t the booster, sir, and it wasn’t the guidance system. The EKV — the EKV did not separate.
Shelby: Do you think you can correct that?
Syring: Absolutely yes, sir. We’ve seen separation issues in previous flight tests…early on in the prototype testing. And those have been corrected. And we’ll find out what happened here and we’ll correct this as well…
Shelby: This is the appropriation subcommittee on defense. We’re interested in cost; we’re also interested in defending this country. Don’t you need more tests rather than fewer tests?
Syring: Yes, sir.
Shelby: The more tests, the more you learn, the more technology evolves in anything — whether it’s a truck, a tank, a submarine or a missile or a missile to defend against a missile attack. Don’t you need more tests, basically?
Syring: Yes, sir. We do need more tests. And I’ve requested in the ’14 budget two intercept tests and at least one intercept test in subsequent years.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska: As you know, I was in Greely at the beginning of May, had an opportunity to go through the field there. And this is obviously not my first time. I have been through on many, many occasions. But I have — I have been pleased to see the buildout, the proposal that we have with Missile Field 1 there. It was absolutely my view that it was shortsighted by the Administration with the previous decommissioning of Missile Field 1 there at Greely.
I look at this — and particularly in view of what we see with increasing threats coming out of North Korea, Iran. My concern is that we not leave Greely at less than full capacity and capability.
What more can we do at Fort Greely to provide the best missile defense to protect our nation?
Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine: Admiral, a 2012 report by the National Research Council concluded that there are gaps in our nation’s ballistic missile defense system, particularly when it comes to protecting the East Coast. Alaska’s going to be fine, but Maine is — there’s a real gap. The report highlighted a location in Maine as one of two possible sights for an additional missile interceptor field…
Syring: We are looking at the two sites in Maine…
Collins: I know in my state of Maine, it is a very welcoming place for military installations of this sort. In fact, I’ve seen several letters from local groups that endorse the site being located in northern Maine, at the site of the former Loring Air Force Base. But I think that’s a very important part of this review process, locating the site in an area where it is not welcomed by the population, I don’t think would be wise.
Finally, the Commander on the Threat:
Syring: The important point — and it’s in the open intelligence — that [the North Koreans have] never yet flight-tested that long-range capability, but the Taepo Dong II launch, again, as I say, it means something, in terms of the ability of getting a payload into space successfully.
So although the threat missiles haven’t been tested at that range, the technology, I think, took a step with the demonstration of that flight.
We must continue to monitor that and not count that it won’t be successful.
We must plan that it will be successful and we must be able to maintain our defense of the country.