The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced on January 31, 2010, that a test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system for countering long-range missiles that took place over the Pacific Ocean that day failed to destroy the target missile. The initial review suggests that the failure occurred because a new Sea-Based X-Ban radar that was tracking the target missile failed to work as expected. A more detailed review of why the GMD system failed to intercept and destroy the target has been initiated.
It is to be expected that critics of the missile defense program will now call for the program to be terminated. Accordingly, it is appropriate to note that many of these critics oppose the missile defense program for the reason that they view missile defense as complicating the arms control and disarmament agenda they support. For them, this test failure has nothing to do with their opposition to the program. Indeed, they would likely see a successful test as a stronger reason for terminating the program than a failed one.
Regarding the technology, even curtailing, let alone terminating, the GMD program would be shortsighted. Failures in a test program for technology as advanced as the GMD system should be expected. For example, the Navy’s Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program suffered numerous test failures in the 1950s. Polaris, however, laid the foundation for the deployment of an SLBM force that was the backbone of the strategic nuclear force that deterred a Soviet nuclear attack for much of the Cold War. Furthermore, it is frequently the case that the scientists, engineers and contractors working on an advanced technology program will learn more from failed tests than successful ones. The proper response to a failed test, like the one on January 31st, is to maintain a robust program that applies the lessons from the failure to advance the program in the future. The alternative is to believe that any advanced technology weapons program can succeed under a circumstance where it is always just one test failure away from termination. If anything, the testing program for the GMD system has been too timid because of concern about negative political reaction to any such failure and inadequate testing budgets. Under this timid approach, the opportunities for dramatic advances in technology are very limited.
Finally, this test was designed to mimic the sort of long-range missile attack on the United States that Iran is likely to be able to mount in the future. The GMD system is the only one currently available to protect U.S. territory against long-range missile attack. If this program is canceled, the U.S. will again become vulnerable to attacks with long-range ballistic missiles. It is intolerable that the American people would remain so vulnerable. The GMD program needs to continue and companion sea-based ballistic missile defense systems should be advanced to give them the capability to counter long-range missiles for the defense of U.S. territory. Currently, the sea-based systems are capable of countering only short- and intermediate-range missiles. Finally, the U.S. could revive a program pursued during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations to develop and field space-based ballistic missile defense interceptors. All three steps are necessary if the federal government is going to meet its obligation to provide for the defense of the American people.