Tens of billions of dollars spent over three decades have still left the Pentagon with no reliable way to shoot down nuclear-tipped missiles approaching the U.S. homeland — a vulnerability that has taken on sharp new urgency after North Korea’s Independence Day test of its first ICBM.
Instead, the missile defense system designed to shield the United States from an intercontinental ballistic missile — a diverse network of sensors, radars, and interceptor missiles based in Alaska and California — has failed three of its five tests, military leaders acknowledge. They all relied on numerous interceptors to try to hit a single target — and even the two successful ones were heavily scripted.
"If the North Koreans fired everything they had at us, and we fired at all of the missiles, we’d probably get most of them," said Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "But is ‘probably get most’ a good day or a bad day?"
The Pentagon’s official stance on Wednesday was that the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, designed by Boeing and a slew of other defense contractors, can knock out a missile whizzing through the atmosphere. But that view is in the minority.
Most current and former military officials and other experts argue that the chances of protecting U.S. territory from a surprise or short-notice ICBM attack would be slim at best. As recently as last month, the outgoing Navy admiral in charge of all the Pentagon’s missile defense programs told Congress he has "reliability concerns" with the system.
According to the Pentagon, Congress has provided at least $189.7 billion for missile defenses of all kinds since 1985, the heyday of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, which aimed to provide a space-based defense against a Soviet nuclear attack. Some of that investment has paid off — for example, on the Patriot missiles now widely used by the United States and its allies, along with other land- and sea-based systems designed to deflect shorter-range missiles in battle. But defenses against incoming ICBMs, falling from space at enormous speed, have proven far more elusive — and not for lack of trying.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system alone is estimated to ultimately cost at least $40 billion, according to a 2013 estimate from the Government Accountability Office.
“Partly we are failing because it is the hardest thing the Pentagon has tried to do,” said Phil Coyle, who served as the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester in the Clinton administration and in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Obama administration. “We’ve had more success with short-range and medium-range systems. But they are going more slowly, they are traveling in the atmosphere. That is different than traveling at 15,000 miles per hour in space. Especially when the enemy is trying to fool you," such as with countermeasures and decoys.
“Three of the previous four [tests] had failed — that is a 75 percent failure rate,” Coyle of the system’s recent tests. Even with its most recent success, “two of five is 40 percent. Forty percent is not a passing grade.”
The system has 36 ICBM interceptors — 32 in Alaska at Fort Greely and four in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is expected to expand that number to 44 by the end of the year.
The latest test of the system took place May 30, when an interceptor missile was fired from California at a target missile launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific.
The Pentagon hailed the test as a milestone, saying it resulted in a "direct collision." Then-Vice Adm. Jim Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, called it an "incredible achievement" and said it proved that the U.S. has “a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat.”
Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the system’s past couple of tests "suggest we’re on a pretty good course."
"Nobody ever said that national missile defense is supposed to be a perfect shield off by itself. It’s part of the larger suite of things we do against threats by North Korea," Karako said. "It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It should be understood in the larger deterrent and defense posture of the United States."
The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, David Duma, upgraded his office’s assessment of the system’s capability after the most recent test.
The new confidence was on display at the Pentagon on Wednesday despite the latest North Korean missile test, which U.S. said involved a weapon not seen before. Its profile suggests it could travel more than 3,400 miles — enough to hit Alaska.
The test missile, which traveled for 37 minutes and splashed down off the coast of Japan, is not believed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead — a major technological hurdle requiring the miniaturization of the regime’s relatively rudimentary nuclear bombs.
But experts in and out of the U.S. government remain deeply skeptical that the American missile defenses would be capable of shooting down such an ICBM.
Prior to upgrading its assessment, the Pentagon’s own most recent testing report says the missile defense system "has demonstrated a limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of simple immediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran." It also said that making any final judgment at this stage is not possible "due to a lack of ground tests supported by accredited modeling and simulation" — a reference to what critics say is a lack of realistic testing conditions.
Even Syring, in testimony before Congress just a week after the recent test of the U.S. defense system, acknowledged that the system still has far to go before it can be counted on.
"We have been on a journey over the last, at least, five to six years to improve the reliability of the entire system," he told the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces panel in early June, citing the need to improve the so-called "kill vehicle" that would destroy an incoming warhead. "We are not there yet."
Boeing deferred all requests about the system to the Missile Defense Agency, which did not respond to a request for comment. But one defense industry official involved with the effort, who was not authorized to speak publicly, insisted that the recent missile defense tests show that the likelihood of knocking down a North Korean missile is better than it was previously.
“But it is still an iffy proposition,” the executive acknowledged.
Many consider that to be an understatement.
Lewis, from the James Martin Center, said the May test did not succeed enough to let the Pentagon scale back its current strategy of firing five interceptors at each incoming missile.
“There’s not a tremendous amount of evidence that the system would be effective," he said.
Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, also called it “a big question mark” if the system would work in a real-world scenario instead of a controlled test.
Missile defense advocates on Capitol Hill, however, have recently called for boosting funding to an array of systems in response to North Korean provocations.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) called missile defense "a major focus" in the committee’s annual National Defense Authorization Act, which would boost missile defense programs by $2.5 billion above the Trump administration’s budget request.
"We put the foot to the gas pedal on missile defense, and I don’t think that it would be a surprise as we see what’s happening in North Korea but also Iran," Thornberry told reporters while previewing the annual defense policy bill.
But Coyle, the former Pentagon weapons tester, expressed doubt about the wisdom of two new programs that the Pentagon is proposing to fill the gaps. One would be a redesign of the so-called “kill vehicle” intended to destroy incoming missiles, and the other is a so-called “multi-object” kill vehicle that could handle numerous incoming targets — an effort that was shelved in the past.
“These will take years and years — they are talking 2030,” said Coyle, who now serves on the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "And meanwhile, North Korea keeps getting better and better. The problem is technology is just not providing us the solutions. There is no technical solution. There really isn’t a military solution to North Korea. We’ve just got to engage with North Korea.”