Effective Ballistic Missile Defense Requires a New Testing Paradigm
By Taylor Dinerman, as published on spaceequity.com 3/15/02

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In the early 1980\'s, there was a small but influential group of politicians, lobbyists and defense intellectuals in Washington who were know as the \"Defense Reformers.\" Led by Gary Hart, they complained that the high tech weapons the Pentagon were buying were too complex and would break down on the battlefield. They complained that just about anything the Pentagon and the military industrial complex produced would not work. They were almost always wrong. If they\'d been right, Saddam Hussein would be busy occupying Des Moines by now.

They did accomplish one worthwhile goal. They forced the DoD to accept a regime of more realistic and more expensive weapons testing for all major new weapons systems. While it may be expensive to shoot up a multi-million dollar tank or helicopter, just to see how it reacts, it\'s a worthwhile process since, if the tests are properly done, they will show up design weaknesses that would otherwise become apparent only on the battlefield.

Testing the new generation of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems, THAAD, PAC-3, Navy TMD and NMD, is proving a tedious and very expensive process. It has been widely published that each NMD test costs about $100 million, thus, the go/no go decision on NMD was made on the basis of three inconclusive tests. Worse, these were development tests that proved nothing about whether the operational anti-missile weapons and their sensors would work as designed.


A new paradigm would seek to cut the costs of each individual test while vastly increasing the total number of tests. It would also segregate the testing into very distinct phases of development testing, proof of concept testing and operational evaluation testing. Letting these phases run together creates the illusion that a prototype, which is mostly a hand made product of the initial design team, is somehow identical to what the weapons will be once it goes into production. This allows both opponents and proponents to make claims that are, at most, weakly connected to reality.

A new testing system that would prove the effectiveness of U.S. BMD weapons would have to be carried out in places other than the usual U.S. test ranges in New Mexico for PAC 3 and Thaad, Hawaii for Naval TMD and Vandenberg /Kwajalein for NMD. For example, the PAC 3 and Thaad could be put though a nine month testing campaign at the British ranges in the Outer Hebrides. Integrated Naval TMD could be tested there at the same time. NMD could have an alternative proof of concept with tests over the Atlantic with the interceptor launched from Cape Kennedy/ Patrick AFB and the target launched from Spain or Morocco.

The argument over whether the Bush administrations or the Clinton Administration\'s NMD proposal would work will go on regardless. The anti-missile defense crowd thinks that the whole thing can be nullified by easy-to-make decoys. Others disagree, since these decoys are not that easy to make and would, in any, case need to be tested in such a way as to allow the U.S. to develop counter measures. An interesting problem is the question of how much of a missiles payload can be devoted to decoys before it ceases to be a cost effective weapon.

The PAC-3 Missile System

Aside from that, there is always the question of deterrence. The whole point of nuclear deterrence was to make the enemy fear to use his weapons since the retaliation would be so devastating. This may have worked with the Soviets, but will it work with smaller powers? If a Third World tyrant, such as Saddam, is about to be overthrown in the course of a U.S. led military action, will he quietly wait for the U.S. to dig him out of his bunker, or will he launch a last revenge attack on whomever he can hit? A man for whom power is everything is not likely to be deterred by the prospect of a war crimes trial.

The only thing that might deter such a man at that moment would be the prospect of looking silly. A last grand gesture of defiance could be made to look ridiculous if the tyrant\'s missiles were simply swatted down by U.S. and Allied BMD systems. To effectively deter this kind of gesture, massive, constant and credible testing would have to take place on a continuous basis. Our notional tyrant would have to be 99% sure that his apocalyptic weapons would never get close to their targets.

Testing directed energy weapons is going to be even more controversial. The Airborne Laser (ABL) mounted in a Boeing 747 that is currently being built will need at least two or three more years of testing before it achieves operational status. According to the latest information, it is currently planned to test the ABL against a live missile in late 2004. Even then, there will always be questions as to how many missiles it will take to overwhelm the system.

The Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) that was originally built to protect Northern Israel from Hezbollah\'s Kaytushas has been tested against a pair of these relatively short range artillery rockets, but the Israel Defense Forces have made clear their doubts about the capacity of this weapon to shoot down a large scale attack where dozens of rockets are fired at once. The system is being refined and scaled down. It is possible that within a few years the THEL will be ready for production and deployment.

Credible testing of both these systems would have to involve hundreds of targets destroyed in complex scenarios that would have not only to replicate the enemy weapons, but would also have to reproduce, to the maximum extent possible, the \"fog of war.\" Using current testing technology, the cost of setting up and executing such a scenario would be in the tens of millions. Yet, for these weapons to be credible, such tests would have to be carried out two or three times a year against a sophisticated range of targets in a complex environment.

In the end, such tests would have to be tests of all the various BMD weapons integrated into a multilayered defensive shield. For example, the PAC3/Thaad combination could be tested against a dozen incoming warheads with the THEL deployed to catch the leakers or the ABL could be tested against a half dozen IRBMs of the Taepo Dong I type with the Navy\'s system as a back up. Such testing would evolve into training maneuvers and eventually into multinational training opportunities.

Philip Coyle, the DoD\'s former Director of Operational Testing, has recently advocated an ambitious testing regime that would push NMD technology to its limits. This kind of operational testing will be needed if, in three or four years, the development test programs have gone well and the whole system is available. In the meantime, a slightly less ambitious but comprehensive series of development oriented tests should be carried out. There is no virtue in a rush to fail and there is none in trying to walk before you run. Coyle\'s ideas are excellent in the long term and should eventually be integrated with even more complex and difficult operational tests.

The key to a cost effective test program is to have a sub-orbital platform that can be used over and over again to launch RVs and decoy clusters in ever more complex configurations. A reusable rocket, such as that being proposed by the TGV Rockets company of Bethesda, Maryland, is the obvious place to start. Eventually, three or four of TGV\'s Michelle B Reusable Rockets could, if used in formation, launch six to eight warheads and decoys at once. Depending on speed, they could stimulate an attack by multiple Scud type vehicles or the end phase of an MIRVs attack on the U.S. homeland. To stimulate mid-course interceptions is more expensive and difficult. The NMD system was probably chosen because it was the single most difficult part of the homeland defense mission to accomplish. Even there, reusable sub-orbital rockets, such as the Michelle B, could be used to launch targets, including targets with complex decoy mechanisms, into low earth orbit. These target/decoy assemblies would then mimic the behavior of warheads and decoys in the mid- course and descent phases of flight. This would be a realistic and fairly cheap way to test any anti-ICBM BMD system. Using ten Michelle Bs, the U.S. could launch twenty warhead decoy assemblies, thus testing the Clinton Administration\'s NMD system against the full attack which it is theoretically designed to intercept and destroy.

Such an \"all up\" test would, of course, be done in then full light of TV and other media. It would be watched by the whole world and any failure would be regarded by the opponents of BMD as a failure of the whole idea. So, the preparations for such a test would have to be meticulous and preceded by years of development and operational testing. It would also have to be the first of a series of, say, quadrennial \"all up\" tests, which would become routine training exercises, like the \"Reforger\" maneuvers of the Cold War.

The opponents of BMD used to claim that the software and computer requirements of the SDI systems were simply beyond the reach of human technology. This argument is now seen for the nonsense it was. Now they think that the intellectual silver bullet that will kill \"Star Wars\" is the testing issue. However, just like the computer problem, the testing problem is getting easier to solve if one simply looks at the way technology is moving. TGV\'s Michelle B is just one of a number of reusable rockets that could be used for launching test warhead/decoy assemblies. The Kistler Two Stage To Orbit (TSTO) could probably perform as well as the Michelle, though without some of the unique features that come from using a piloted vehicle.

RLV technology which must be developed in order to reduce the cost of access to space is just as important in reducing the cost of BMD testing. These complementary needs could, if all goes well, put the RLV industry into what might be termed, a \"virtuous cycle,\" where costs decrease and capacity and safety increase by 100% every few years. A Moore\'s Law for RLV technology is, as of right now, only a dream, but, since the RLV industry is still going though its birthing pains, such a dream is as realistic as any parents\' hope that their child will grow up and go to a good college.

There is a logic to this kind of thing. The military has a need and there are some bright entrepreneurs or established industrialists out there trying to solve a problem. They come together and the result is ENIAC in 1945 or SAGE in 1954 or Darpanet in 1969 or GPS in the 1980s. In the next decade, RLVs will be the next technology to migrate from miltary or semi-military functions to widespread civilian use.