Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), much-beleaguered about the status of the missile defense system designed to protect the United States against missile attacks, can finally report good news. Sort of.

It held a test of the upgraded version of the interceptor for its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (Aegis BMD) system. The new Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block 1A was launched off of the USS Shiloh – a first, as previous tests all used the USS Lake Erie – to hit a target coming out of the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. MDA reports that the SM-3 Block 1A successfully intercepted a medium-range target with a separating warhead at an altitude of just over 100 miles.

This test – Flight Test Maritime-10 – is notable for several things. It’s the first intercept attempt for the upgraded SM-3. It’s the first time another country’s ship was used in a flight test: Japan’s Aegis destroyer Kirishima added its long range surveillance and tracking (LRS&T) capabilities to the test, along with an Aegis destroyer, the USS Paul Hamilton. The USS Milius, another Aegis destroyer, incorporated information from a Hawaii-based X-Band radar that is being used in lieu of the final Sea-based X-Band Radar (SBX), which is still in development. Finally, the USS Lake Erie, an Aegis cruiser (and the one that launched earlier versions of the SM-3), followed the test target’s separating warhead with the prototype Aegis BMD Signal Processor (BSP).

FTM-10 marks the seventh intercept out of eight attempts for the Aegis BMD program. (For the program’s flight test history, check out our lovely flight test chart. Of course, this will need to be updated per yesterday’s test.) This sounds very impressive, and in fact is a much better record than any of the other missile defense systems. But it ignores the detail that the guidance control system –the Solid Divert and Attitude Control System (or SDACS, as the kids like to call it) – was not used in its most advanced, multi-pulse mode. The one flight test failure of the SM-3 occurred when MDA tried to use it in that mode, but the system couldn’t take it. Since the test failure in June 2003, the system has been tested in the less-stressful (and capable) sustain mode.

This makes a difference in the maneuverability of the system. Also, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation noted in a January 2006 report,

[D]uring ground tests of the redesigned kinetic warhead maneuvering system, the highest pulse thrust mode failed to consistently perform to specification. This maneuvering system was redesigned in FY05 in an attempt to address past problems with thrust response. These thrust anomalies could lead to additional design changes.

Watch this space to see how the SDACS progresses.

But let’s forget that for a minute. FTM-10 comes at a particularly fortuitous time for the United States. Although it had been planned for months, the test was held during a time of heightened tension with North Korea, with the latter threatening to hold a missile flight tests and the United States threatening to shoot it down with its missile defense system. Now, the ground-based system fielded in Alaska and California has a pretty lame track record, as I’ve written before. So why don’t we just bring in the Aegis BMD system and use it against North Korea’s putative ICBMs? According to Debra Rub-Zenko, vice president of Boeing Integrated Missile Defense,

This lethal intercept by the SM-3 KW is confirmation that the system is fully capable of its mission to defend our warfighters, homeland and allies against ballistic missile attacks.

Warfighters? Possibly. An ally? Maybe – if it’s a relatively small country that’s near an ocean. But homeland? Not a chance.

The Aegis BMD system was created, designed, and tested as a system that would defend against theater ballistic missiles. This means short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (i.e., those with ranges of 500 miles or less). Anything with a longer range and the Aegis BMD system is left eating its dust: it is too slow to be able to target an ICBM-class threat. The Aegis’ interceptor would have to be reworked to have its speed doubled, and then its its canisters on the Aegis ships would need to be redone. What the system can do is work on tracking an ICBM and networking its LRS&T data into the overall missile defense network.

So for those who would believe that our missile defense “problem” vis-à-vis North Korea has been solved…well, it wouldn’t be anyone reading this blog, as you all are far too smart (and handsome, have you been working out?) to fall for that. But people who believe that the Aegis BMD system could work against an ICBM would be sadly mistaken.


Victoria Samson here, commandeering ACW for a bit (per Dr. Wonk’s approval, of course) to talk a bit about the activation of the U.S. missile defense system. According to the WashTimes’ Bill Gertz, the U.S. military is getting all systems ready to go in case they need to shoot down an errant Taepodong 2 ballistic missile. Sounds good, right? Finally getting something for the estimated $92 billion that we’ve spent on missile defense in the past 20+ years?

Er, no. There are a couple of small problems with this scenario.

1. The system in question is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program. It has nine interceptors in the ground in Ft. Greely, Alaska, and two more in Vandenberg AFB, Calif. This system has a wonderful track record of making five intercepts out of ten attempts. I don’t know about you, but that sort of testing history makes me feel all secure and warm inside. And this was done during heavily scripted scenarios where we knew when the test target was going to fly, what it was going to do once launched, what it would look like, and how it would behave. It’s doubtful that the North Koreans will be as obliging as to give us all that information.

Plus, the last test intercept was made back in October 2002. The past two times – December 2004 and February 2005 – the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) tried to attempt an intercept, the U.S. rocket didn’t even leave the launch pad. (For the latter, it turned out that the arms holding the missiles up in their silos weren’t properly built for the salty environment in which they were fielded, so the MDA is having to replace those components in all the silos.) MDA had to back up and in December 2005 hold a flight test where their major goal was to get the rocket off the ground. That, they were able to do.

2. The radar system that is needed to help detect missile launches, the sea-based X-Band Radar (SBX), is still floating around and undergoing tests outside of Hawaii – nowhere near its home port of Adak, Alaska. The satellite network being built to track missiles once they’re launched – the Space-Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) – isn’t planning its initial launch of two test satellites until next year, with the goal of getting the system up and running somewhere around 2012. That is, if they can keep on target despite getting their funding for the program cut this year. The House Appropriations Committee recommended a $67 million drop for STSS in the FY 07 budget debate, as they were concerned that MDA was jumping ahead of itself with the program. And the command and control system necessary to link everything together was cited in a recent report by the Pentagon’s Inspector-General’s office as having such poor network security that it very well could be hacked.

3. Looking at the other side of the equation, we’re uncertain as to what the North Koreans are planning. If it turns out they’re launching a satellite, the United States might be a bit embarrassed at having attempted to shoot down someone else’s space assets. That might set off a nasty precedent that we, who depend so heavily on our space hardware, would suffer from the most.

4. But let’s say that magically all these issues were resolved. What exactly does it mean that the system is on? Good question. Short answer: no idea. The MDA, having apparently better lobbyists than the rest of the Pentagon, is free from having to do boring things like create operational requirements, lifetime costs, or schedules for its programs. While it has been saying since the end of the 2004 that the United States has a “limited” defensive system deployed, no one has been able to wrestle an exact definition of what constitutes an operational system out of them. Is it when GMD has passed operationally realistic tests? If so, then missile defense may never be considered operational.

In these particular circumstances, when we say that missile defense is “on,” maybe it’s that the troops at the deployment sites are on full alert. Maybe it’s that we have ships in-theater monitoring the situation. Or maybe it’s that, like with much of missile defense, we’re relying on smoke, mirrors, and vaguely worded statements to mask what we can’t do.

NB: Noah at has been on fire in following this issue. Mosey on over there and check it out.


Maybe that’s more impressive if you say it in Austin Powers’ voice. I realize that Capitol Hill’s attitude toward money is a billion here, a billion there – you add it up in order to start getting real money. But in certain cases, $1 billion can actually mean something.

In the FY 2007 budget request, it signifies the amount of money that has been asked for programs which could have space weapons capabilities…or indeed, could be space weapons programs in disguise.

A new joint report by the Center for Defense Information and the Stimson Center (full disclosure: I’m one of the authors) has rooted through the Air Force and Missile Defense Agency budget requests and highlighted many programs which should be looked at more closely.

These systems, while ostensibly for other matters, could provide a dual-use space weapons capability. And a few of them – the Space Test Bed for starters – are flat-out space weapons programs.

The United States’ official policy is to eschew putting weapons in space, largely because they are so destabilizing, are ridiculously expensive to develop, launch, and maintain, and have an unproven military utility.

However, it would appear that the Bush administration – again – is more concerned with bulldozing ahead with a dubious technological dream (ahem, missile defense) than in actually sitting down and thinking through the consequences of its actions.

By funding these programs, the United States can create space weapons programs without having to go through the fuss of having to justify themselves to the public or consulting with Congress or really doing anything that would imply that there’s been some thoughtful analysis of the ramifications of weaponizing space.

At any rate, highlighted for special attention are the Missile Defense Agency’s Space Test Bed and Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE), the Air Force’s Experimental Satellite Series (XSS) and Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space (ANGELS), and a new MDA Micro Satellite program. Plus there’s discussion of funding and possible plans for various space control programs, lasers, and even some sooper seekrit black programs. Go check it out.


I know that a little bureaucrat-speak is endemic to most of the Pentagon (and a good chunk of Washington), but the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) must be one of the most fluent organizations when it comes to talking circles around its responsibilities.

In MDA’s FY 2007 budget estimates overview, it proclaims that there is a charter for the new “Ballistic Missile Defense Executive Board” which is supposed to replace the Pentagon’s “Senior Executive Council.” Inside Missile Defense’s (March 1, 2006, subscription required. again, sorry) headline on this is “Pentagon Revamping Oversight of Missile Defense Body.”

Mmm….no. Not really.

The budget estimates state that the board will “recommend and oversee the implementation of strategic policies and plans, program priorities, and investment options to protect our nation and our allies from any form of ballistic missile attack.” Furthermore, the board is supposed to “incorporate evolving requirements into a comprehensive acquisition strategy.” Finally, the board is hoped to:

guide new ideas and technologies as they develop into initial capabilities, and subsequently into fully mature solutions ready for fielding and inclusion into the missile defense system.

Uh-oh: MDA just used the R word: requirements. This sounds an awful lot like an operational requirements document, something that MDA has long shunned as being far too restrictive for its purposes (although every other Pentagon program is supposed to cough one up). Not to say that having some sort of thought-out schedule and timeline for your developing program isn’t a good thing and a way to avoid thoughtlessly wasting money on poorly-run or thought-out programs. But MDA certainly seems to look at it that way.

Instead, MDA sticks to the same tired clichés it has been mouthing for oh, say, the past five years: a stubborn insistence to attempt to stick to a schedule, come hell or high water (with its belief that integrating various missile defense elements will “achieve better performance while maintaining our schedule”); and relying on knowledge-based decision-making – is there any other kind? – and capabilities-based acquisitional strategies.

The latter is MDA-speak for making everyone happy by funding every program that is even the slightest affiliated with missile defense. The idea is that capabilities-based acquisition:

allows us to exploit capability opportunities sooner, focusing on adding capabilities with demonstrated military utility.

I’m not sure which missile defense program they’re referring to here. Would this be the Ground-base Midcourse System that’s being deployed in Alaska and California, despite flaws in the interceptors that came out during testing and an utter absence of a flight test intercept using an operationally-configured interceptor? Putting it out now is certainly sooner than waiting until it’s actually proven itself during testing. But it still makes you wonder, what’s the demonstrated military utility there?

Or maybe they’re referring to the big brawl over boost-phase intercept. The two programs duking it out are the Airborne Laser (getting $597 million in FY 07) and the Kinetic Energy Intercept (which is to receive $405.5 million in FY 07). Despite ABL constantly teetering on the brink and KEI getting gutted in last year’s defense appropriations, MDA continues to attempt to fully fund these projects. Plus it insists that the two programs will each have important milestones in FY 08, although MDA hasn’t said what will happen if either or both of those programs fail to meet their milestones (ABL has to do a shoot-down of a ballistic missile, while KEI got the relatively easy job of just flying an interceptor).

The MDA budget estimate also says that “Pre-planned knowledge points allow us to manage risk by making sure we are getting what we wanted out of our development efforts.” So again, remind me: when are they going to share these “knowledge points” with Congress so that there can be at least a hint of accountability?

Finally, MDA says that this form of acquisition – which it has been following for years now – allows for the agency to:

use our budgetary resources in the most efficient and responsible manner.

Perhaps they’re referring to the Near-Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE), which is getting money from two different pots in the FY 07 budget (Advanced Technology program element and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System program element), and is being shuffled through three different program elements in three years. Not at all suspicious, the amount of dust that’s being kicked up over that program.

What we’re seeing with this new executive board is a pro forma attempt to look like MDA has any restraints on its funding or where it goes with its programs. Unfortunately, it does not. This is a bad precedent to set in any respect and particularly so when you consider that this is the branch of the Pentagon that is supposed to officially start basing weapons in space far too soon. It doesn’t bode well for the open discussion and honest assessment that such a momentous step should undergo.


…to link to its websites.

I thought I’d start off my guest hosting of the Wonk’s blog by a little navel-gazing. Join with me, won’t you?

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)’s public affairs office has been working since last summer to get information out through the blogosphere, reports (“U.S. Military Targets Blogs To Shape Opinions On Iraq, Afghanistan Operations,” March 1, 2006, subscription required).

I’m sure that the selected bloggers can’t help but feel a little flattered. CENTCOM’s efforts to send out press releases to bloggers and treat them the same as big boy media probably does a lot to make them feel important and validated. So there – it’s not just your mom who thinks you’re important.

Furthermore, CENTCOM’s public affairs officers have been encouraging blogs to link back to them. They’ve had some limited success: over 300 blogs have links to the public affairs’ website, while 9,300 blogs have links to the CENTCOM main site, which then allow a second set of sites to link to another 270,000 blogs.

Turns out that links from blogs are how more people stumble upon CENTCOM’s site than through the mighty search engines of Yahoo or Google.

The problem? Lt. Col. Richard McNorton, a CENTCOM spokesperson, admits that the blogs who link back to them are mostly supporters. Says McNorton:

They will pretty much post anything…The problem with that is the readers are already pro-military. It’s almost like we’re preaching to the choir.

Sounds like a bunch of self-affirming Fox viewers, but what do I know?

I would like to think that the reason why less than ten blogs critical of the Pentagon link to CENTCOM websites is that the readers of those types of bloggers (called “determined detractors”) (is there any other kind?) are much smarter and capable of finding the CENTCOM without having their hands held.

It’s interesting that the Pentagon exerts so much effort on its image in the blogosphere and yet does so little to answer criticisms of its actions. Sure, disseminating information is a good thing, and I’m glad that at least one branch of the Pentagon is indulging in it.

But there’s only so much that CENTCOM can do to improve people’s concerns about the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan when the news coming out of there is so dire. Facts on the ground will eventually overtake whatever kind of spin is put on them state-side.


The Pentagon appears to have a loose construct of time and savings when it comes to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Originally intended to give the United States guaranteed access to space, it instead has done in its seven painful years of existence nothing more than give government regulators a giant headache. An excellent op-ed by Jim McAleese in this week’s Space News (“U.S. Air Force Can Lead by Example On ULA,”) gives the context for EELV’s snafu, although he rather optimistically still believes it can work out.

The EELV’s Buy 3 contract, intended to divvy up 23 space launches to the primary contenders (Boeing and Lockheed Martin), was intended to have been announced by the end of this year. But then that deadline got moved up to the beginning of October, which it clearly has not met.

According to McAleese, when EELV costs incurred a Nunn-McCurdy re-structuring in December 2003,

[T]he U.S. Air Force agreed to a $12.8 billion increase in EELV launch infrastructure sustainment payments through 2020. This was a significant increase, given that as recently as 2002 the Air Force estimate for EELV “Assured Access” had been $1.1. billion.

He goes on to say,

Now the EELV sustainment subsidies represent 63 percent of all costs for 95 U.S. Air Force launches, and 44 percent of the total costs of all 137 planned EELV launches for U.S. Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office and NASA/commercial customers. The total EELV sustainment payments from 2004-2020 average $818 million per year on a straight-line basis.

How did this grand program that would save so much money end up costing so much more?

Love and optimism can be blind, especially when it comes to bidding for government contracts.

The original launches were bid at fixed prices of $72 million (Lockheed Martin) and $73 million (Boeing) each. Except…

Ultimately each EELV launch has an average unit-procurement cost of $226 million over the 137 total planned EELV launches. The average unit cost is $232 million per launch, once the $834 million of U.S. Air Force research development, testing, and evaluation expenses are also allocated.

Well, it’s a good thing then that those helpful defense contractors came up with a way to cut corners.

Even though Boeing was officially punished for having illegally used Lockheed Martin’s proprietary information when bidding for the original EELV contract back in 1998, somehow the two companies decided back in May to let bygones be bygones and establish an uber-company called the “United Launch Alliance.” The ULA ostensibly would allow the contractors to save redundant spending on overhead costs to the tune of $150 million annually.

How this is going to work is unclear, as McAleese points out:

Even day-to-day program management, and actual launch costs themselves, are excluded from the EELV launch service contracts. Instead, all of the recurring overhead costs, plus all infrastructure costs have been consolidated into the sole-source EELV launch capability contracts. The Air Force is funding virtually all of the annual working capital, long-term capital expenditures and recurring overhead for all of United Launch Alliance’s EELV launches, including both commercial customers and NASA launches as well.

Maybe this is why the FTC still won’t okay the ULA, which Lockheed Martin and Boeing double-pinky-swear isn’t a monopoly. Supposedly Buy 3 is being put aside until the ULA’s future is certain. I wouldn’t bet on it.


Missile defense programs generally don’t die; they fade away. They’re born of great hope and expectations, which they gradually piss away with poor performance and unbelievable cost growth until they can be quietly put out to pasture.

Airborne Laser (ABL) seemed to be one of those unstoppable programs. Laser too heavy for the aircraft? Problems keeping the laser’s beam focused? No realistic concept of operations devised? Not a problem for this program, whose continued existence admittedly baffled me. Even though it had been cited by multiple (one, two, three) by Government Accountability Office reports as having serious engineering challenges to fix before it could be feasible, and rumors have swirled within the Beltway that it was approaching the precipice, somehow it managed to sail serenely on. I figured that it had a powerful patron in the uppermost echelons of the U.S. government plumping for its survival.

Not so much, it would seem.

According to a Reuters article (“U.S. Said Mulling Ending Airborne Laser Project,” 30 November 2005), a White House budget analysis of DoD’s 2007 budget suggested dropping the program, citing budget constraints.

Maybe last year’s much-vaunted “first light/first flight,” where program officials powered the laser for a fraction of a second and had the modified Boeing 747 fly, wasn’t quite the pinnacle of achievement that Missile Defense Agency officials crowed it was.

Granted, ABL is now expected to cost over $5 billion, so if you had to make a cut that would instantly free up lots of cash and yet not affect your actual national defenses one iota, it would be a logical choice. Assuming that you haven’t made a mortal enemy of whoever has been its protector.


Another program floated by the same White House document to be cut is the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS). Now, the disappearance of this network of satellites, which has also seen its cost shoot upwards and its launch schedule shift far to the right, might actually affect the way missile defense would function.

MDA claims says that the STSS satellites would be …

… a constellation of interoperable Research and Development (R&D) satellites and supporting ground infrastructure for the detection, tracking and discrimination of ballistic missiles. Data from STSS will be used to allow BMDS interceptors to engage incoming missiles earlier in flight.

That’s an incredibly important part of the missile defense infrastructure, as the decades-old Defense Support Program satellites, originally designed to see a swarm of Soviet ICBMs coming over the horizon, are nowhere near sensitive enough to provide an adequate early warning of missile launches.

(BTW: If you’re not recognizing the STSS name, never fear. It used to be called SBIRS-Low, but was renamed to take the SBIRS taint off of it.)

So how serious is this administration at getting missile defense to work if it’s willing to take out the needed eyes in the sky for it to function at all? And how credible are assertions that missile defense has, at this very moment, achieved any sort of operational status if this major hole in its infrastructure exists today, tomorrow, and forever more?


Back in my salad days at UCLA, it was practically a prerequisite for us feminists to attend “Take Back the Night” rallies. Take ownership, and you could ostensibly take control.

So I read with interest the comments made by the chair of the Defense Science Board, William Schneider (right). Schneider’s most vivid pronouncement on missile defense to date ended up scaring the bejesus out of Congress and most of the United States’ allies, when in spring 2002 he suggested that the United States again look into nuclear-tipped missile defense interceptors.

This week’s missile defense statement was slightly less incendiary yet still indicative of how out of touch much of this administration is when it comes to missile defense.

Congress needs to take “ownership” of missile defense programs, according to Schneider. Looking at the $10 billion-plus budgeted for missile defense this fiscal year, or at the two flight test failures in a row for the interceptors fielded in Alaska and California, or at the egregious schedule slips and cost growth of the various programs, that’s an idea long in coming. Someone’s got to hold the Missile Defense Agency accountable, or at least try to stem back some of the Pentagon’s golden child’s excesses.

Except that’s not what he meant.

Schneider explained to (“DSB Chairman: Congress Must Take ‘Ownership’ of Missile Defense Policy,” Nov. 29, 2005) that members of Congress need to include missile defense programs in their tactical planning when determining defense budgets. This would imply that missile defense programs have done such a stellar job in their developmental and operational testing that you can just order up, say, 100 PAC-3 interceptors and be certain that they’ll show up, be ready for deployment, and earn your complete and utter trust in their efficacy. Just like an aircraft carrier or any other regular cog in the American fighting machine.

The truth is, unless Schneider has another set of missile defense programs tucked away somewhere, the debate is not over: missile defense still has to prove itself. Until then, it hasn’t earned the right to be included in assessments of the U.S. military’s arsenal.

Just to pull out one example is the PAC-3’s Nov. 11 flight test failure.

Also amusing are the credibility with which he endows missile defense’s feeble performance to date:

In the 21st century, missile defense will have a larger role in U.S. nonproliferation policy by dissuading countries from obtaining ballistic missile technologies, Schneider said. This will be important, he added, because over the next 25 years the cost to produce ballistic missiles will drop significantly.

Another important role missile defense can play is persuading allied countries to develop defensive and not offensive measures to thwart weapons of mass destruction, Schneider said. “It is not in [America’s] interest to have allies obtain WMD to counter WMD,” he said. “It will be important for the U.S. to provide missile defense.”

Seems that the United States would be better off by putting less of an emphasis on its own WMD programs (cough, Reliable Replacement Warhead, cough). Guess it’s a case of do as we say, not as we do.

But it’s the final paragraph that’s the most intriguing:

One of the consequences of the Bush administration’s push to get a ground-based missile defense system fielded late last year was an imbalance in MDA’s budget, with more money going toward procurement accounts and less for research and development, he said. “That should shift as the services pick up [responsibility] for some of these systems,” he added.

Er, no, it wasn’t the services fault that so much money wasn’t being spent on R&D. Try an overeager administration anxious to fulfill a campaign pledge.