In response to North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test, which flew higher and farther than any of its previous launches, President Trump told Americans not to worry. “We will take care of it,” he said. “It is a situation that we will handle.”
The big question is how. Unfortunately, Trump’s assertion may rest on his unwarranted confidence in the U.S. missile defense system. During a recent interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity about the threat posed by a potential North Korean nuclear strike, he declared that the United States has “missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time.”
The facts, however, tell a different story.
The reality is that the U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system has succeeded in destroying a mock enemy missile in only 56 percent of its tests since 1999. And, as I’ll explain, none of the tests approached the complexity of a real-world nuclear launch.
What’s more, ever since the George W. Bush administration, the GMD program has been exempt from routine Pentagon oversight and accountability procedures. The result? Fifteen years later, all available evidence indicates that it is still not ready for prime time, and may never be.
Of course, Trump is prone to exaggeration. In fact, he has averaged more than five lies per day since taking office. But it is critical to understand the potential ramifications of this particular Trumparian boast: It could lull Americans into a false sense of security and, even more alarming, embolden Trump to start a war. As veteran military reporter Fred Kaplan pointed out, if the president truly believes the U.S. missile defense system is infallible, “he might think that he could attack North Korea with impunity. After all, if the North Koreans retaliated by firing their nuclear missiles back at us or our allies, we could shoot them down.”
Such wishful thinking could clearly lead to a disastrous miscalculation. And what’s worse, Trump just may believe his preposterous claim because he’s not the only one making it.
If You Repeat a Lie Often Enough…
Missile defense advocates have a long history of hyperbole. A 2016 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists included an appendix with a selected list of some three dozen statements administration and military officials have made extolling the GMD system’s virtues. They are incredibly consistent, and given the facts, consistently incredible.
In March 2003 — before the GMD system was even deployed — then-Undersecretary of Defense Edward Aldridge assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that its “effectiveness is in the 90 percent success range” when asked if it would protect Americans from the nascent North Korean threat.
Seven years later, in December 2010, then-Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly told the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee that “the probability will be well over in the high 90s today of the GMD system being able to intercept” an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) targeting New York City.
Fast forward to April 2016, when Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee. “The U.S. homeland,” he maintained, “is currently protected against potential ICBM attacks from states like North Korea and Iran if it was to develop an ICBM in the future.”
Wrong, wrong, and yet again, wrong. As Washington Post “Fact Checker” columnist Glenn Kessler wrote in mid-October, the claim that the GMD system has a success rate in the “high-90s” is based on “overenthusiastic” math. Although the system has succeeded only 56 percent of the time over the last two decades, the calculation is predicated on a hypothetical, never-been-tested launch of four GMD interceptors with a 60-percent success rate producing a 97-percent chance of destroying one incoming ICBM. If one interceptor missed because of a design flaw, however, the other three would likely fail as well. “The odds of success under the most ideal conditions are no better than 50-50,” Kessler concluded, “and likely worse, as documented in detailed government assessments.”
No surprise, defense contractors also wildly overstate the GMD system’s capabilities.
This September on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing’s Defense, Space & Security division, stated unequivocally that the GMD system would “keep us safe” from a North Korean attack. The system is “doing exactly what is needed,” Caret said, but added that it will ultimately require even more rocket interceptors from her company, the prime GMD system contractor since 1996. There are currently 40 interceptors in underground silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, all made by Boeing.
Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy, whose company produces the “kill vehicle” that sits atop Boeing’s interceptor, was equally sanguine about the GMD system when he appeared on Squawk Box the following month. “I say relative to the North Korean threat, you shouldn’t be worried,” Kennedy said. “But you should ensure that you’ve talked to your congressman or congresswoman to make sure they support the defense budget to the point where it can continue to defend the United States and its allies.”
Given such glowing reviews, it’s no wonder President Trump asked Congress for $4 billion for the GMD system and other programs, such as the ship-based Aegis system, designed to intercept short- to intermediate-range missiles. In a November 6 letter to lawmakers, Trump wrote: “This request supports additional efforts to detect, defeat, and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies, or partners.”
The House of Representatives apparently is even more enthused about the GMD system’s much-touted capabilities. It passed a $700-billion defense authorization bill on November 14 that includes $12.3 billion for the Missile Defense Agency — more than triple what Trump requested. Some of that money would cover the cost of as many as 28 additional GMD interceptors, but lawmakers asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to develop a plan to add 60, which would increase the overall number of interceptors to 104.
Unrealistic, Carefully Scripted Tests
If members of Congress bothered to take a closer look at the GMD system’s track record, they would hopefully realize that committing billions more is throwing good money after bad. Even the most recent test, which the Missile Defense Agency declared a success, would not inspire confidence.
That test, which took place on May 30, resulted in a GMD interceptor knocking a mock enemy warhead out of the sky. At a press conference afterward, then-Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring claimed it was “exactly the scenario we would expect to occur during an operational engagement.”
Not exactly. Yes, the Pentagon did upgrade its assessment of the GMD system in light of the May exercise, but — like previous tests — it was not held under real-world conditions.
In its 2016 annual report, the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office cautioned that the GMD system has only a “limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.” The “reliability and availability of the operational [interceptors],” it added, “are low.” After the May test, however, the office issued a memo stating that “GMD has demonstrated capability to defend the U.S. homeland from a small number of intermediate-range or intercontinental missile threats with simple countermeasures.”
Despite this rosier appraisal, Laura Grego, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) physicist who has written extensively about the GMD system, is not convinced that the latest test represents a significant improvement. After analyzing an unclassified Missile Defense Agency video of the May 30 exercise, she concluded that it was clearly “scripted to succeed.”
As in previous tests, system operators knew approximately when and where the mock enemy missile would be launched, its expected trajectory, and what it would look like to sensors, she said. And, like the previous tests, the one in May pitted one GMD interceptor against a single missile that was slower than an ICBM that could reach the continental United States, without realistic decoys or other countermeasures that could foil U.S. defenses.
The key takeaway? The GMD system has destroyed its target in only four of 10 tests since it was fielded in 2004, even though all of the tests were held under improbably ideal conditions. If the tests had been more realistic, the GMD system likely would be zero for 10. Moreover, the system’s record has not improved over time. Indeed, it flunked three of the four tests preceding the one in May, and not because the Missile Defense Agency made the tests progressively more difficult.
According to the 2016 UCS report Grego co-authored, a primary reason for the GMD system’s reliability problems is not funding, but lack of oversight. In its rush to get the system up and running, the George W. Bush administration exempted the program from standard military procurement rules and testing protocols. That ill-advised decision has not only run up the system’s price tag, which to date amounts to more than $40 billion, it also has produced a system that is incapable of defending the United States from a limited nuclear attack.
“Regardless of what President Trump and other missile defense boosters want us to believe, the data show that we can’t count on the current system to protect us,” said Grego. “We need to reduce the risk of a crisis escalating out of control. Only diplomacy has a realistic chance of doing that.”
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.