Pentagon Says Its $180 Billion Missile Defense System Has Improved

(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon continues to make progress in showing that its $180 billion network of ground- and sea-based missile interceptors, sensors and communications links could defend the U.S. from a limited North Korean or Iranian attack, according to the military’s testing office.

The system “has demonstrated capability” to protect the American mainland or troops abroad from “a small number” of intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missile threats if the Pentagon “employs its full architecture of sensors and command and control,” Robert Behler, the Defense Department’s director of operational testing said in a new assessment obtained by Bloomberg News.

Behler’s annual report on major weapons systems, to be published this month, reaffirms increasing confidence in missile defenses improvements that have been cited by him and his predecessor starting in mid-2017. Before then, test office assessments labeled the system’s demonstrated capability to defend the U.S. as “limited” after it it failed in five of 10 attempts dating from 2004 to destroy a dummy target. The two most recent interception attempts were successful.


The missile defense system is the Pentagon’s second-costliest weapons program behind the F-35 fighter. It’s managed by Boeing Co., linked by a network from Northrop Grumman Corp. and uses interceptor missiles built by Raytheon Co. It now includes 44 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California as well as Army radar, Thaad missile batteries and Aegis-class anti-missile vessels.

The Defense Department last week raised the possibility of developing a more extensive system some day as it presented a plan for the future that could include space-based interceptors, low-orbit early-warning and missile-tracking satellites, laser-firing drones and F-35s to intercept missiles as they launch.

The Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency plans what may be its most complex exercise yet as soon as late March -- a “salvo” test firing of two interceptors at a surrogate ICBM. Still, arms control critics have repeatedly criticized the ground-based program, saying the Pentagon has conducted only tightly controlled tests in which the target warhead can easily be picked out from decoys.

A “potential adversary has every incentive to make the attack as difficult as possible to intercept,” and they wouldn’t need “the Ferraris of decoys” to flummox an interception effort, Laura Grego, a missile defense analyst with Union of Concerned Scientists said in an email.

Even after the success of the two latest tests, she said, “the system failed to destroy its target in more than half of the 10 intercept tests” since it was declared operational in 2004.

Behler’s report cautioned that the Missile Defense Agency continues to have deficiencies in its modeling and simulation capabilities that preclude “a quantitative evaluation” of the systems’ “operational effectiveness and suitability.”

The U.S.’s regional networks of missile defenses -- provided by Aegis-class vessels and Army Thaad units -- have “demonstrated a capability to defend” U.S. force and allies in the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific, European and Central Command areas from small numbers of medium and intermediate-range missiles and short-range threats, he found.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.