So Much For “Star Wars”


Science group warns of shortcomings in U.S. missile defense

Thu Jul 14, 2016 | 12:09 AM EDT
By David Alexander | WASHINGTON

(Reuters) – The U.S. missile defense system to counter attacks from rogue states like North Korea has no proven capability to protect the United States and is not on a credible path to achieve that goal, a science advocacy group said on Thursday.

The ground-based midcourse missile defense system, which has deployed 30 interceptors in Alaska and California, has been tested under highly scripted conditions only nine times since being deployed in 2004, and failed to destroy its target two-thirds of the time, the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a report.

After nearly 15 years of effort to build the GMD homeland missile defense system, it still has no demonstrated real-world capability to defend the United States,” said Laura Grego, a UCS physicist who co-authored the report.

Deficiencies in the program, which has cost $40 billion so far and is being expanded to include 44 interceptors by 2017, are due largely to a Bush administration decision to exempt the system from normal oversight and accountability, to rush it into service by 2004, Grego said in an interview.
“Instead of getting something out to the field that worked well or worked adequately, in fact this has been a disaster. It’s done the opposite,” she said.

The Obama administration’s efforts to improve oversight while keeping the system outside the normal development and procurement process have contributed to the problems, she said.

“The lack of accountability has had and will have real lasting effects, especially for a system … that’s strategically important. It should be held to the highest standards, the highest rigor,” she added.
The Missile Defense Agency said in a statement the rapid deployment requirement in the law that created the system was “a driving factor” in the delivery of a ground-based interceptor with “reliability challenges.”

The agency said the problems had led to changes in the interceptor’s design and a program to improve reliability, including use of more mature technologies. The MDA said it was seeking ways to reduce the risks of deploying equipment still under development.

The UCS report echoed criticisms the homeland missile defense system has faced from other quarters. A Pentagon assessment in 2015 found that flight testing of the system was still “insufficient to demonstrate that an operationally useful defense capability exists.”

A February report by Congress’s Government Accountability Office said the MDA was taking a “high-risk” approach by buying interceptors still under development for operational use.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Gregorio)

The North Korean Nuclear Threat Against Babylon

North Korean Nuclear Threats Spotlight US Missile Defense

As North Korea rattles its nuclear saber, threatening to bomb the U.S. at “any moment,” a nerve-jangling question hangs in the air: If Pyongyang did launch a nuclear-armed missile at an American city, could the Pentagon’s missile defenses overcome their spotty test record and shoot it down beyond U.S. shores?

America has never faced such a real-life crisis, and although officials say they are confident the defenses would work as advertised, the Pentagon acknowledges potential gaps that North Korea or others might be able to exploit, someday if not immediately.

One possible vulnerability involves a foe’s “countermeasures,” or decoys carried aboard long-range offensive missiles to fool a U.S. interceptor missile into hitting the wrong target.

The Pentagon has poured at least $84 billion into missile defense over the past decade and is planning to spend another $3.3 billion over the next five years for a single element of the system, known as Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD. Its key part is a network of interceptor missiles designed to launch from underground silos, fly into the path of an enemy missile as it arcs through space and smash into it, destroying it.

That system has failed three of its last four intercept tests. The only success in that series was the most recent test, in June 2014.

A congressional watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, said in February that the Pentagon “has not demonstrated through flight testing that it can defend the U.S. homeland against the current missile defense threat.”

Adm. William Gortney, America’s homeland defender as head of U.S. Northern Command, told Congress this month that the nation needs “more capable forces and broader options.” Key improvements are in the works, including a “long-range discrimination” radar for more effective tracking of incoming missiles.

The North Koreans’ harsh rhetoric, including a threat in late February to deal “fatal blows at the U.S. mainland any moment,” is linked in part to its anger at U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which the North sees as a rehearsal for an invasion.

No one is predicting a bolt-out-of-the-blue North Korean nuclear attack, but the threat looms larger as the Koreans seemingly stride closer to fielding a nuclear-armed missile that can reach U.S. territory. Already this year they have claimed a successful H-bomb test, put a satellite into space orbit and claimed a successful simulated test of the warhead re-entry knowhow needed for a missile strike on the United States. On Thursday, the North claimed to have successfully tested a solid-fuel rocket engine which, if true, would mark a significant further technological advance. The use of solid fuel reduces launch preparation time and thus shortens warning time for U.S. defenses.

More appears to be in store. State-run media reported earlier this month that leader Kim Jong Un ordered preparations for a “nuclear warhead explosion test” soon and test-firings of “several kinds of ballistic rockets able to carry nuclear warheads.” With increasing regularity, the North Koreans are claiming major advances on the nuclear front that have caught Washington’s attention, even if they are exaggerated.

President Barack Obama, who plans to address 50 heads of state gathered in Washington this week for a nuclear security summit, has said North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear and missile programs “increasingly imperils the United States.”

Of particular worry is a long-range missile under development in North Korea that the U.S. calls the KN-08. The Pentagon’s most recent public report on North Korea says the KN-08 has a range of more than 3,400 miles, putting it into the category of an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM.
Gortney said the KN-08 has “profound implications,” especially if it is deployed as a road-mobile weapon, meaning it could be moved and launched from vehicles that make it less vulnerable to detection. Such mobility, he said, would enable the North Koreans to elude or confound traditional U.S. pre-launch warning systems.

Gortney says the North Koreans may have figured out how to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a KN-08 missile.

“While the KN-08 remains untested, modeling suggests it could deliver a nuclear (weapon) to much of the continental United States,” Gortney told a Senate panel March 10.

The segment of U.S. missile defenses designed to stop a long-range North Korean missile are the interceptors based at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Three years ago this month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon would increase the number of deployed interceptors to 44 by putting an extra 14 at Fort Greely. The price tag for that expansion, initially put at $1 billion, has jumped to $1.5 billion.

None of the extra 14 interceptors has been deployed yet but all are to be in place by the end of next year. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a House committee last week that the Pentagon also is working on a more effective “kill vehicle,” which is the 5-foot-long device attached to the top of an interceptor; its internal guidance system helps steer it into an oncoming missile, destroying it by force of impact.

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Follow Robert Burns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP

West Coast Prone To Nuclear Attacks (Dan 7)

 
SERIOUS FLAWS REVEALED IN U.S. ANTI-MISSILE NUCLEAR DEFENSE AGAINST NORTH KOREA
By DAVID WILLMAN contact the reporter
Two serious technical flaws have been identified in the ground-launched anti-missile interceptors that the United States would rely on to defend against a nuclear attack by North Korea.
Pentagon officials were informed of the problems as recently as last summer but decided to postpone corrective action. They told federal auditors that acting immediately to fix the defects would interfere with the production of new interceptors and slow a planned expansion of the nation’s homeland missile defense system, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.
As a result, all 33 interceptors now deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County and Ft. Greely, Alaska, have one of the defects. Ten of those interceptors — plus eight being prepared for delivery this year — have both.
Summing up the effect on missile-defense readiness, the GAO report said that “the fielded interceptors are susceptible to experiencing … failure modes,” resulting in “an interceptor fleet that may not work as intended.”
The flaws could disrupt sensitive on-board systems that are supposed to steer the interceptors into enemy missiles in space.
The GAO report, an annual assessment of missile defense programs prepared for congressional committees, describes the problems in terse, technical terms. Defense specialists interviewed by The Times provided more detail.
The interceptors form the heart of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, GMD for short. Four of the massive, three-stage rockets are stationed at Vandenberg and 29 at Ft. Greely.
They would rise out of underground silos in response to an attack. Atop each interceptor is a 5-foot-long “kill vehicle,” designed to separate from its boost rocket in space, fly independently at a speed of 4 miles per second and crash into an enemy warhead — a feat that has been likened to hitting one bullet with another.
The GMD system was deployed in 2004 as part of the nation’s response to Sept. 11, 2001, and a heightened fear of attack by terrorist groups or rogue states. It has cost taxpayers more than $40 billion so far and has been plagued by technical deficiencies.
One of the newly disclosed shortcomings centers on wiring harnesses embedded within the kill vehicles’ dense labyrinth of electronics.
A supplier used an unsuitable soldering material to assemble harnesses in at least 10 interceptors deployed in 2009 and 2010 and still part of the fleet.
The same material was used in the eight interceptors that will be placed in silos this year, according to GAO analyst Cristina Chaplain, lead author of the report.
The soldering material is vulnerable to corrosion in the interceptors’ underground silos, some of which have had damp conditions and mold. Corrosion “could have far-reaching effects” because the “defective wiring harnesses” supply power and data to the kill vehicle’s on-board guidance system, said the GAO report, which is dated May 6.
When Boeing Co., prime contractor for the GMD system, informed government officials of the problem last summer, they did not insist upon repair or replacement of the defective harnesses, according to the report.
Instead, Missile Defense Agency officials “assessed the likelihood for the component’s degradation in the operational environment as low and decided to accept the component as is,” the report said.
The decision minimized delays in producing new interceptors, “but increased the risk for future reliability failures,” the report said.
Chaplain told The Times that based on her staff’s discussions with the Missile Defense Agency, officials there have “no timeline” for repairing the wiring harnesses.
The agency encountered a similar problem with wiring harnesses years earlier, and the supplier was instructed not to use the deficient soldering material. But “the corrective actions were not passed along to other suppliers,” according to the GAO report.
L. David Montague, co-chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed operations of the Missile Defense Agency, said officials should promptly set a schedule for fixing the harnesses.
“The older they are with that kind of a flawed soldering, the more likely they are to fail,” Montague, a former president of missile systems for Lockheed Corp., said in an interview.
The second newly disclosed defect involves a component called a divert thruster, a small motor intended to help maneuver the kill vehicles in flight. Each kill vehicle has four of them.
The GAO report refers to “performance issues” with the thrusters. It offers few details, and GAO auditors declined to elaborate, citing a fear of revealing classified information. They did say that the problem is different from an earlier concern that the thruster’s heavy vibrations could throw off the kill vehicle’s guidance system.
The report and interviews with defense specialists make clear that problems with the divert thruster have bedeviled the interceptor fleet for years. To address deficiencies in the original version, Pentagon contractors created a redesigned “alternate divert thruster.”
The government planned to install the new version in many of the currently deployed interceptors over the next few years and to retrofit newly manufactured interceptors, according to the GAO report and interviews with its authors.
That plan was scrapped after the alternate thruster, in November 2013, failed a crucial ground test to determine whether it could withstand the stresses of flight, the report said. To stay on track for expanding the fleet, senior Pentagon officials decided to keep building interceptors with the original, deficient thruster.
The GAO report faulted the Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon, for “omitting steps in the design process” of the alternate thruster in the rush to deploy more interceptors. The skipped steps would have involved a lengthier, more rigorous vetting of the new design, defense specialists said. The report said the omission contributed to the 2013 test failure.
All 33 interceptors now deployed have the original, defective thruster. The eight interceptors to be added to the fleet this year will contain the same component, GAO officials told The Times.
The missile agency currently “does not plan to fix” those thrusters, despite their “known performance issues,” said the GAO report.
Contractors are continuing to work on the alternate thruster, hoping to correct whatever caused the ground-test failure. The first test flight using the alternate thruster is scheduled for late this year.
The GAO had recommended that the Pentagon postpone integrating the eight new interceptors into the fleet until after that test. Defense Department officials rebuffed the recommendation, the report said.
In a response included in the report, Assistant Secretary of Defense Katharina G. McFarland wrote that delaying deployment of the new interceptors “would unacceptably increase the risk” that the Pentagon would fall short of its goal of expanding the GMD system from 33 interceptors to 44 by the end of 2017.
Asked for comment on the report, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, Richard Lehner, said in a statement that officials “have in place a comprehensive, disciplined program to improve and enhance” the GMD system “regarding the issues noted by the GAO.”
“We will continue to work closely with our industry partners to ensure quality standards are not only met, but exceeded,” the statement said.
Boeing declined to comment.
The GMD system is designed to repel a “limited” missile attack by a non-superpower adversary, such as North Korea. The nation’s defense against a massive nuclear assault by Russia or China still relies on “mutually assured destruction,” the Cold War notion that neither country would strike first for fear of a devastating counterattack.
GMD’s roots go back to the Clinton administration, when concern began to mount over the international spread of missile technology and nuclear development programs. In 2002, President Bush ordered “an initial set of missile defense capabilities” to be put in place within two years to protect the U.S.
To accelerate deployment, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld exempted the missile agency from the Pentagon’s standard procurement rules and testing standards.
Engineers trace the system’s difficulties to the breakneck pace at which components were produced and fielded. In precisely scripted flight tests above the Pacific, interceptors have failed to hit mock-enemy warheads about half the time.
As a result, the missile agency projects that four or five interceptors would have to be fired at any single enemy warhead, according to current and former government officials. Under this scenario, a volley of 10 enemy missiles could exhaust the entire U.S. inventory of interceptors.
The Obama administration, after resisting calls for a larger system, pledged two years ago to increase the number of interceptors to 44. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have pushed for further expansion. The House this month passed a bill authorizing $30 million to plan and design a site for interceptors on the East Coast. The White House called the move “premature.”
david.willman@latimes.com