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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 24, March 1998

Missile Defence Comment and Developments

On 22 March, the Washington Post reported that an independent panel set up to investigate US plans and requirements for ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, had concluded that there was a danger of a "rush to failure" caused by inadequate planning, acute technical problems and political impatience. The panel - appointed and sponsored by the Department of Defense's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) - consisted of 16 civilian and retired military experts, led by Larry Welch, former Air Force Chief-of-Staff.

The Department of Defense received the 76-page report early in March, but, according to the Post, decided against publishing it in any form. The Post quotes the report as arguing that "the perceived urgency of the need for these systems has led to high levels of risk that have resulted in delayed deployments because of failures in...development test programs" and claiming in particular that:

"[T]he rush to failure in flight-testing has been partially caused by a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of developmental testing... A single success is regarded as a large step forward and becomes the criteria for a key program decision, such as exercising an option to buy operational missiles."

On 25 March, the Armed Forces Newswire Service quoted the report as damningly accusing the Department of Defense as "acting recklessly...to hasten inauguration of the defensive systems inspired by President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars proposal."

Naturally, there was great concern amongst advocates of an extensive and accelerated BMD programme about the impact of such strong, independent criticism. The Post article quoted an unnamed House staff member, privy to the report's findings, as saying: "It would have been more valuable had the report focused on innovative procedures for putting these systems in the field faster while reducing the inherent risks... The attitudes of Congressional members are likely to remain unchanged."

On 23 March, the influential Center for Security Policy (CSP) think-tank in Washington denounced the panel's conclusions and identified the 1972 US-Russia Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty as the real cause of the lack of progress. According to CSP President Frank Gaffney Jr., who described the Welch Panel's findings as "absurd":

"As long as the United States permits its anti-missile programs to be constrained by the ABM Treaty, the nation could easily spend two or three times the amount it has sunk in Research and Development on missile defenses and take another fifteen years - and still have no effective defenses fielded."

Five days before the Post story, the House National Security Committee voted by 45 votes to 0 to send legislation before the full House, possibly before the Easter recess in early April, authorizing additional spending of $147 million to accelerate development and testing of BMD systems. According to Committee Chair (Republican - South Carolina), great haste is necessary because:

"Our currently deployed missile defense systems were designed against older and slower threats and have only limited capabilities against this new generation of more capable missiles."

On 12 March, the Department of Defense's head of acquisition, Jacques Gansler, gave a staunch defence of progress thus far towards preparing a national missile defense (NMD) system. Addressing a joint hearing of the House Military Procurement and Military Research and Development Subcommittees, Gansler stated:

"There will be a system deployed... There is absolutely no question the nation will have to have missile defense in the future. The question is when." It was important not to rush the process of testing the candidate systems, Gansler added, echoing the findings of the independent panel: "one test is a terrible measure of success or failure. We need to review what test and evaluation is for. ... We need more flights to learn. We learn more from success than failure..."

Current Administration policy is to aim to be in a position to deploy BMD systems by 2003, with key decisions on which systems to be taken as early as 2000. While Congress is impatient with this timeline, many officials working on the development programme, like Gansler, seem to be finding it extremely exacting. In his annual report on Pentagon weapons testing, released on 3 March, Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Philip Coyle stated: "The schedule established for NMD presents a major challenge relative to traditional DoD acquisition timelines. If deployment is required by 2003, the NMD program will have to compress the work of 10 or 12 years into six years. As a consequence, much of the [testing and evaluation] will have to be done concurrently and there will be considerable emphasis on modelling and simulation."

Reports: Don't rush NMD system, says weapons test chief, Jane's Defence Weekly, 3 March; Gansler says he is committed to deployment of missile defenses, C4I News, 12 March; Pentagon confident of next THAAD missile test, Defense Daily, 12 March; Panel OKs money for missile defense, Associated Press, 17 March; Panel fires at antimissile programs, The Washington Post, 22 March; CSP criticizes anti-missile study, Armed Forces Newswire Service, 26 March.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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