President Trump Confident in Missile Defense: In the Grip of Dangerous Illusion

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Written by Andrei Akulov; Originally appeared at strategic-culture.org

The US is pushing ahead with expansion of the nation’s homeland ballistic missile defense (BMD). The effort enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress and among experts. Many allies place a high value on BMD cooperation with the United States. However, there are ample reasons to question the efficiency of US missile defenses, especially the capability to protect against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

President Trump Confident in Missile Defense: In the Grip of Dangerous Illusion

“We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97% of the time,” President Donald Trump said in his interview with Fox News on October 11, adding “and if you send two of them, it’s going to get knocked down.” He was talking about the threat coming from North Korea to be repelled by the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) in Alaska and California – the $40 billion project administered by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

The US military conducted the first-ever missile defense test involving a simulated attack by an intercontinental ballistic missile in May. The ICBM-type target was fired from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands toward the waters just south of Alaska. The mission was to prepare for countering an intercontinental missile launched by North Korea. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) described the test as an “incredible accomplishment”. According to Vice Admiral Jim Syring, director of the agency, “This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat.” The assessment appears to be exaggerated as the test was not conducted in a realistic environment.

The next test of the GMD system is scheduled for late 2018 and, for the first time, will involve firing two interceptors against one ICBM target. It makes unsubstantiated the president’s affirmation that two interceptors are enough to knock out a North Korean missile as no such tests have been conducted so far.

The US currently deploys 36 interceptors – 32 at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. By the end of 2017, there will be 44 deployed GBIs. A majority of the interceptors use the CE-I variant of kill vehicle that has scored only two successes in four tests. At least ten interceptors are to be equipped with the CE-II Block I vehicle, which has had two successful intercept tests in three tries.

It is generally believed that it takes at least four-five interceptors to hit the target. It means President Trump is off base saying the hit probability is 97%. Prior to the ICBM test, the GMD system had successfully hit its target in only ten of 18 tests since 1999. A success rate is about 56%, not 97%. But even 56% is almost certainly an overstatement, given the less-than-realistic nature of the tests.

A success rate for four-five interceptors per target may be 97% but the possibility that each successive interceptor’s chance of successful kill might not be independent of the previous one, due to correlated factors such as design shortcomings, leading to a lower overall success rate. Nevertheless, President Trump believes each interceptor has a single-shot probability of kill (SSPK) for a given interceptor of 97% (rather than 56%).

According to the Washington Post, “No single interceptor for ICBMs has demonstrated a 97-percent success rate, and there is no guarantee using two interceptors has a 100-percent success rate. Moreover, the military’s suggestion that it could achieve a 97-percent success rate with four interceptors appears based on faulty assumptions and overenthusiastic math. The odds of success under the most ideal conditions are no better than 50-50, and likely worseas documented in detailed government assessment.”

Joe Cirincione, the President of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, investigated anti-missile programs for almost 10 years as professional staff on the House Armed Services and Government Operations Committees. He believes that “If people took a close look at just one of these interceptor tests, they would likely conclude, as I did, that the tests bear little resemblance to real-world conditions.”

If North Korea fired an ICBM — or multiple ICBMs — at the United States, the GMD with its Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) is only one system that could take a shot at intercepting and destroying the warhead outside the earth’s atmosphere in midcourse flight. Other missile defense systems such as THAAD and Aegis are in no position to hit ICBMs as they’re designed for other classes of targets.

With only one test against an ICBM, the MDA is not even close to demonstrating that the system works in a real-world setting. The GMD systems have not yet been tested in the range of conditions under which it is expected to operate. No tests have been conducted at night or against complex countermeasures, such as electronic countermeasures and decoys. The tests are always rigged because the intercept team knows the timing and trajectory of the incoming missile. But even the scripted tests have often failed. What has been done so far is insufficient to demonstrate that an operational BMD capability really exists.

The US has not publicly conducted any tests to see whether the missile-defense radars can distinguish a missile from chaff. Even cheap inflatable balloons can make all intercept efforts go down the drain. With no air resistance (or drag) in space, a decoy like a balloon shaped like a nuclear warhead could travel in the same way as the true warhead, making it difficult for a missile to distinguish the real thing from the decoy. Balloons are light enough to enable a sophisticated warhead launch 20 or 30 decoy balloons to obscure the path of the warhead, swamping the defense system with fake signals.

In February and April 2016, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed that the MDA has not “demonstrated through flight testing that it can defend the US homeland against the current missile defense threat,” relying on “a highly optimistic, aggressive schedule” to upgrade the system.

The US abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, which greatly obstructed arms control process. Efficient or not, the US current and potential BMD capability is taken into consideration to influence Russia’s military planning. It provokes Moscow into taking countermeasures to respond to BMD plans and negatively affects the prospects for future Russia-US arms control agreements. With uncertainties raised about the strict balance of arms agreed upon in New START, a chain reaction is triggered leading to arms race.

Philip Giraldi, a highly respected expert and the Executive Director of the Council for the National Interest, believes that the American people are being fooled by the administration, which tries to make them think that a nuclear war is thinkable. According to him, “If that is the message being sent by the White House, it would encourage further reckless adventurism on the part of the national security state.” Mr. Giraldi hit the nail right on the head. The GMD effort creates a dangerous illusion that a victory in a nuclear conflict is achievable and no money should be spared to spur the implementation of the MDA plans. In reality, the US defense industry is the only benefactor while the taxpayers throw money into the drain. The result: further erosion of arms control and reduced security.

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  • Enkidu

    I would like to see how they can defend their fleet from lower-yield nukes. Also, South Korea will be the one taking most of the damage in case a war breaks out, a missile could reach Seoul in less than a minute depending on NK actual technology.

    And if the US nukes North Korea, China, Japan and SK would be the ones dealing with the fallout later.

  • Garga

    The US is selling it’s preemptive nuclear strike doctrine by over blowing Missile defence.to the public. This way they downplay the consequences of such action and pretend their population could be safe.
    The reality is, tracking and intercepting a ballistic payload with a velocity well over 6-7 KM/s (~25,000 KM/h) on it’s peak and altitude of 1,000 KM is next to impossible. Now add to the equation that each missile carries multiple warheads and numerous decoys.

    In the US, any bill regarding increase of weapons, military and war enjoys bi-partisan support. Try to pass a bill to increase health, education and well-being of people and see how many senators and congress members support it.

    • TiredOfBsToo

      The US isn’t looking for an educated citizenry, and it certainly doesn’t give a da*n about health and well-being, it’s looking for obedience and cannon fodder only. To that end we have censorship, McCarthyism and witch hunts. No alternative voices will be allowed, only the voice of the ‘Deep State’.

    • Barba_Papa

      I doubt that the Norks have ICBM’s with multiple warheads and decoys. They seem to be hardpressed to get a single missile with a single warhead on the US West Coast already, anything more seems to be way above their capabilities. If anything I suspect Nork missiles may be exactly the one thing that the US system seems capable of intercepting. A limited volley of simple primitive ICBM’s.

      As for US politics, yeah, it does baffle the mind that excessive defense spending gets bipartisan support, and healthcare does not. I reckon its because of some unique sets of circumstances. Americans worship their military, so any extra cash for the military scores with voters. Whereas in Europe extra cash for the military was seen as wasteful. Voters would rather see improvements to healthcare. Also many Americans are fiercely independent and don’t want to be part of some government run universal healthcare system. Even poor ones. And then there’s the power of the entrenched defense and medical lobbies, which in both cases do not want to see any changes. Which translates to more money for bombs and rockets, and no universal healthcare.

      • Garga

        I’m talking about anti-ballistic missile defence in general, not NK’s capabilities..
        The US preemptive nuclear attack thesis was created against the USSR. The whole Cuban missile crisis was the result of such doctrine (installing Jupiter MRBMs in Italy and Turkey) and resolved only because the Soviets proved they won’t leave a US preemptive attack unanswered.
        Such plans exist today against Russia, China and even Iran.

        NK is just a boogeyman for the US to justify it’s military build up close to China and Russia. No sane person accepts that NK can be a serious threat to the US.

      • soso

        why do you present the no1 factor last ? namely the lobbyists, and most importantly those hiring them !
        everything else (the voter, independent american for military, suspicion to medicare, …) is utter BS !

        • Barba_Papa

          No reason to the order of my list. Just what came to mind first.

  • Jesus

    US thinks it can calculate the trajectory of the ballistic missile and make an “accurate” estimate in intercepting the missile, which is the “reality” of the universe they live in.
    Russian Satan (present system) and Sarmat ( future system) ICBMs would have no difficulty penetrating US air space and render BMDs useless. The Yars ICBM would render similar results; the MIRVs of these ICBMs are maneuverable, and once deployed from the ICBM carrier they are unstoppable.
    The Sarmat will also deploy hypersonic glide vehicles, they are different than MIRVs, they can be released thousands of miles from the target and are highly maneuverable and unstoppable, BMD system would be clueless in finding and guessing the trajectory of these hypersonic vehicles.

  • For many years now, I’ve had a sneaking impression of the USA being a toy (a cudgel) in the hands of the architects of the new world order of global slavery. The architects are Anglo-Zionist elites accompanied with royal families from Euroland + some distinguished individuals. If their plan of the subjugation of the world fails and North America turns into radioactive ash, they won’t be affected by any mean – for they are not residents but the visitors of the White House and owners of the Wall Street financial empire.

  • soso

    Lol,
    Russians said time and again they will not fall for another arms race,
    and Chinese don’t seem bothered much by the kabuki drama on their doorstep ;
    yet these morons keep thinking they can impress and fool those two into bleeding themselves developing expensive missile systems to overcome a BMD with inexistent AM capabilities !
    just like the THAAD deployment in SK, the GMD in Romania and Poland, all designed to create tensions in Beijing and Moscow, by convincing any hardliners out there, that it’s time to respond !

    But I suspect the Russians and Chinese learned their lesson and I think they’ll let North Korea expose the whole sham ; but troubles are, these bunch of nincompoops may push either NK or themselves (surprise) into a corner, provoking a chain reaction and leading to a point of non return, like in an event of an “unrelated” incident (ship lost, lives lost, plane downed, …) putting one or the other in a position to ascertain his stand !
    the US can’t back off because of the image it desperately tries to fit onto herself vis-a-vis its vassal allies ; and NK can’t back down simply because of the situation it created inside NK itself, the dear leaders can’t fail, can’t blink, they have to deliver, in the eyes of NK people, that’s the word.

    It’s a dangerous hot air which surprisingly (or not ?), keeps the pockets of the likes raytheon, lockheed, and others, stashed with plenty, paper-worth green bucks, which nevertheless slowly but surely, are on their way to where all paper end, the bin !

  • Vitex

    97% of the time. Too bad if the other 3% all fall on your orange-died head, fool.