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Missile Defense Defense

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

I begin by stating I do not have the technical competence required to make an independent assessment here.

Recently, the NYT published an article quoting leading missile defense critic,  MIT Professor Ted Postol:

Review Cites Flaws in U.S. Antimissile Program

Mr. Obama’s announcement of his new antimissile plan in September was based on the Pentagon’s assessment that the SM-3, or Standard Missile 3, had intercepted 84 percent of incoming targets in tests. But a re-examination of results from 10 of those apparently successful tests by Theodore A. Postol and George N. Lewis, being published this month, finds only one or two successful intercepts – for a success rate of 10 to 20 percent.

Most of the approaching warheads, they say, would have been knocked off course but not destroyed. While that might work against a conventionally armed missile, it suggests that a nuclear warhead might still detonate. At issue is whether the SM-3 needs to strike and destroy the warhead of a missile – as the Pentagon says on its Web site.

“The system is highly fragile and brittle and will intercept warheads only by accident, if ever,” said Dr. Postol, a former Pentagon science adviser who forcefully criticized the performance of the Patriot antimissile system in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Naturally, the Pentagon disagreed with Dr. Postol, but their response was unusually blistering this time (and ignored by the Times):

Missile Defense Agency Responds to New York Times Article

….This sea-based interceptor missile is designed to intercept and destroy short to medium-range ballistic missiles using “hit to kill” technology, which means that the interceptor collides directly with the target missile or warhead, and destroys the target using only the force of the collision.  The allegation that target intercepts were reported as successful when they were not successful is wrong, and the data presented by the authors in the article is flawed, inaccurate and misleading.

In each successful intercept test the target missile was destroyed by the Aegis BMD/SM-3 system due to the extreme kinetic energy resulting from the “hit to kill” intercept.  In each instance, the mission objective of “hit to kill” of the unitary or separating target was achieved. 

Postol and Lewis apparently based their assessment on publicly released photos gleaned from a sensor mounted aboard the SM-3 and postulated what they perceived to be the interceptor’s impact point although they had no access to classified telemetry data showing the complete destruction of the target missiles, or subsequent sensor views of the intercept that were not publicly released so as not to reveal to potential adversaries exactly where the target missile was struck.

Actually, the publicly released videos, which can be seen at www.mda.mil/news/gallery_aegis.html, and from which the still photos were extracted, show infrared images from both interceptor and airborne sensors demonstrating the complete destruction of the target missiles.

All of the tests cited by the authors as “misses” were tests involving short-range unitary targets, when the warhead remains attached to the booster rocket.  These tests were correctly described by the Missile Defense Agency as successful intercepts, because they successfully intercepted the target.  Post-test analysis from collected telemetry showed that the interceptor’s kill vehicle impacted the target body or warhead within inches of the expected impact point that was calculated to maximize damage against a variety of warhead types.

….The authors of the SM-3 study cited only tests involving unitary targets, and chose not to cite the five successful intercepts in six attempts against separating targets, which, because of their increased speed and small size, pose a much more challenging target for the SM-3 than a much larger unitary target missile. They also did not mention the fact the system is successfully intercepting targets much smaller than probable threat missiles on a routine basis, and have attained test scores that many other Defense Department programs aspire to attain.

I mention all this because my amigo Shane Deichman, who like Postol, is a physicist and a former scientific adviser for the DoD (Postol for the Chief of Naval Operations, Deichman for JFCOM) and is currently working at the National Missile Defense Agency, felt that the rebuttal scored a direct hit on Postol’s claims about the system tests ( which might explain why it did not get cited by the NYT, though in fairness, the Times did quote the agency spokesman). I trust Shane’s judgment but I’m not able to expound on it, so he is cordially invited to add any comments here that he might wish that might further the reader’s (and my own) understanding.

Comments are, of course, open to all.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007


When I was in my twenties, I studied a fair amount of economics and economic history. One concept that stuck with me was that of “Countervailing Power” which came from the book American Capitalism, by the famous liberal Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith. While Galbraith was interested in how bargaining could be leveraged by non-economic factors, “countervailing power” has great utility as a concept in terms of disciplining the mind to explore contraindicative examples. This is one reason I tend to feature a range of views here that I sometimes agree with only in part, just a little bit or even not at all. Arguments are improved only by competition and criticism, not from being sheltered from them.

In that spirit, Shane Deichman of IATGR offered a robust critique of the article by LTC Paul Yingling and my question regarding military reform in my comment section; it was too good to leave there. Deichman himself has considerable military experience with the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Joint Forces Command and I reproduce his insightful remarks below:

“Before we consider “reforming” the system, I think it is useful to first note some facts about our system. For more than 30 years (nearly an entire career for some), we’ve had an all-volunteer military with high standards for admission. America has probably invested more proportionally in its military (Leviathan) than any other all-volunteer military force in history (this is conjecture on my part, based on what Tom Barnett’s mentor Art Cebrowski would call “Data Free Analysis” :-).

So, with an all-volunteer force in a $10T+/yr GDP nation with a low (<5%) unemployment rate, you get some interesting dynamics. "Careerism" is one of them. I am not a Personnelist, but I know of many who have written extensively on the concept (most notably my good friend Don Vandergriff, a fine Tanker who was outspoken and revered by his troops but whose career was deep-sixed by a vindictive CO). Don has written much on personnel reform, training and the “culture wars” in the DoD; a link to one of his monographs on D-N-I is here:

Culture Wars

Without getting too long-winded, I believe that there is a fundamental lack of accountability within the Pentagon. Not only in budgets (ask anyone in OSD if they REALLY know where all the money goes; they don’t), but also in performance.

Paul’s idea of implementing 360-degree profiles merits consideration (I did a couple myself as a middle manager at U.S. Joint Forces Command, and commented on several others). That might be a good place to start enhancing a culture of accountability within all ranks.

But there is no “silver bullet”, especially in a system as complex as the U.S. military. I think Paul would have been more effective had he focused on the civilian leaders’ roles in the “failures” he cites.

Fundamentally, I believe the system is sound. Every soldier/sailor/airman/Marine and guardsman — enlisted, NCO, and officer alike — as well as every civilian employee of the U.S. Government swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign AND DOMESTIC. And we all took that oath freely, without any mental reservation nor purpose of evasion.

Accountability begins inside. And sometimes we all need to be reminded of our promises.

It’s a good thing that we have an all-volunteer military. And it’s a good thing that we have civilian oversight of the warmaking capacity of our nation. And it’s a good thing that we have a Legislative Branch that holds the purse strings. Separation of powers works.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution deliberately split the powers across the branches of the government to protect our individual freedoms. We wanted weak government in the early days of the Republic, and I submit that we still want it today.

As a final bit of “Data Free Analysis”, consider the fate that befell the Roman empire after the creation of the Praetorian Guard. The “new elite” lost touch with their roots, with their sense of personal integrity and service to the republic. And that may be the direction that our own Republic goes if we continue to indulge a paucity of personal accountability within ALL ranks of leadership. “

Well said. I still believe Yingling has put his finger on a systemic problem but Shane’s caveats are the proper kind of countervailing considerations in seeking a solution.


Shane’s fellow director at Enterra, Tom Barnett, also posted on Col. Yingling and the Generals

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