National Missile Defense

Testimony Missile Defense

National Missile Defense

September 8, 2000 19 min read
Acting Senior Vice President, Research
Kim R. Holmes, oversaw the think tank’s defense and foreign policy team for more than two decades.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for providing me with the opportunity to testify on the subject of national missile defense.

I commend you for focusing the attention of Congress, through this hearing, on the question of testing and how it relates to the process of developing and deploying a national missile defense system for the United States. Few national security issues are more important, and yet few are as misunderstood. The reaction to the failed test on July 7 showed a great deal of confusion about the purposes of missile defense testing. Some believed the failed test proved the technological unfeasibility of missile defenses. Others concluded it proved nothing of the sort. A basic disagreement indeed exists in this country over the purposes of missile defense testing. One side insists that testing is designed mainly to decide whether to proceed with any kind of deployment at all. Another side believes that testing is not intended to decide the issue of deployment, but rather to educate us about which kind of technologies and systems would best implement a deployment decision that already has been made.

This distinction is important because the former argue that the failed July 7 test proves that missile defense is not technologically feasible and therefore should not be deployed anytime soon. The latter argue that the July 7 test proves virtually nothing about the technological feasibility of missile defenses and is, in any event, irrelevant to a decision that was already made with the passage and presidential approval of the National Missile Defense Act in 1999.

I contend that the latter position is more consistent not only with America's strategic interests but U.S. law. This becomes clear if we put the July 7 test in the perspective provided by the implications of the National Missile Defense Act. This Act said "it is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized or deliberate) with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriation of funds for National Missile Defense."

To this end, I would like to provide you with my conclusions regarding the implications not only of the July 7 test but also of how the entire missile defense testing program is being run. Hopefully these conclusions can provide you with guidance on which steps should be taken to ensure that we have the best missile defense system possible at the earliest possible date.


My first conclusion is that weak missile defense technology was not the cause of the failed intercept test on July 7. The primary reason the test interceptor did not destroy its target on July 7 was because of a problem with the rocket technology that is 20 years old and that was built 10 years ago. Yet this essential fact has been lost in the stream of commentary that followed the test.

The interceptor, which was tested over the South Pacific, had two components: a modified Minuteman booster rocket and a kill vehicle to destroy a dummy warhead launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. After the target missile was launched from California, it released the dummy warhead and a balloon decoy in space as planned to try to fool the interceptor. The balloon decoy, which missile defense opponents often contend can easily foil missile defenses, failed to inflate. The interceptor was launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific 20 minutes later. Preliminary analysis of the test results indicates that the sensors, communications system, battle management system, and radar functioned properly. However, a malfunction in the Minuteman booster prevented the kill vehicle from being separated. According to the Pentagon, the booster rocket started to tumble during flight and did not signal the kill vehicle to separate and begin its intercept routine.

The Minuteman rocket is not new technology. It is in fact the backbone of America's deployed land-based strategic missile forces. However, the kill vehicle used in this test did contain new technology for intercepting warheads in space. Moreover, other elements of the test system-such as sensors to track the target missile in flight, a communications system, a battle management system, and prototype radar-contained new missile defense technology as well.

But as the July 7 test showed, it was the old Minuteman rocket technology that failed, not the new missile defense technologies. In reality, the key element of the missile defense system being tested-the kill vehicle-never had an opportunity to demonstrate its intercept capability. The outcome of the test indicates problems not with basic science, but rather with engineering and quality control of the test systems. Lt. General Ronald Kadish, Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), stated during a press conference after the launch that he considered the booster to be so reliable that it was not even on his list of things that might go wrong during the test.

It is, therefore, factually incorrect to conclude that the failure of the July 7 test proves that missile defenses are not technologically feasible. In fact, it proves absolutely nothing about the new technologies since they never had a chance even to be tested. If anything, the results of other tests in the past suggest the exact opposite. During the first flight test of the kill vehicle last October (IFT-3), the system found and destroyed its target without the benefit of many of the advanced tracking and command, control and communications technologies now being tested. Similarly, a test last week of the joint U.S.-Israeli Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) theater missile defense system succeeded in shooting down two Katyusha rockets launched simultaneously.In fact, over the last year, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization can claim 6 successful test intercepts of theater and national missile defense technology, compared with only 3 significant failures. No fair assessment of the facts could lead anyone to conclude that a 66percent success rate suggests that missile defenses are not technologically feasible and therefore should not be deployed.

My second conclusion is that even if critics were correct that the July 7 test represents a failure of new missile defense technologies, it would make no difference as far as the decision to deploy is concerned; a decision to deploy a national missile defense has already been made. The National Missile Defense Act of 1999 requires the fielding of a national missile defense system as soon as technologically possible. Signed by President Clinton on July 22, 1999, this Act is the law of the land. It is, therefore, a legal requirement that the federal government continue to develop and test a variety of systems to find the most effective and near-term alternative. There can be no question, then, that we must proceed with a national missile defense system. The Congress and the President have spoken. We must now find out how best to proceed, not whether to proceed.

Deciding first on the requirement for a system and then testing to design it is, after all, the normal way military systems are developed. For example, long before we actually had a sea-based nuclear deterrent, first the Navy and then the President decided that we needed to have one. After this decision was made, the Navy set out to develop and deploy the Polaris submarine and sea-launched ballistic missile. They did so, in fact, on an accelerated development schedule precisely because the requirement was deemed to be so urgent. A special program office was established in 1955 by the Navy to develop these systems with only minimal bureaucratic oversight from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of progress. Management was streamlined, funding was guaranteed and the main driving force for the program was to solve as quickly as possible technological problems to make the systems work.

Surely if the requirement for missile defenses is real, as President Clinton has admitted even in his recent address concerning his decision to delay deployment, then it is a fair question as to why he is not moving more aggressively to meet that requirement. Why is President Clinton not moving the missile defense program as quickly as President Eisenhower moved the Polaris program? Does President Clinton think the missile threat to America from rogue states is not as urgent as his words suggest? Is the requirement real or not? If it is real, then the President should not demand near technological perfection at the outset, particularly as proof of whether we should in fact meet the requirement, but rather move as aggressively as possible to meet the requirement that he has already conceded is real and urgent.

One of the best examples of this approach can be found in a civilian program-i.e., President Kennedy's decision to go to the moon. The political and policy decision to send a man to the moon was made almost a decade ahead of achieving the capability to perform the mission. The development and testing program was to determine how to send a man to the moon and bring him back. The results of specific tests in the program were not used to revisit the original policy and political decision to send a man to the moon. Likewise, the adverse outcome of a particular test should cause neither the Administration nor Congress to revisit the decision it made last year to field a national missile defense system.

The President's decision to delay the construction of a missile defense system should be seen in this perspective. President Clinton tried to leave the impression that his decision was about whether to proceed at all with deployment. As he said, ``we should use this time to ensure that NMD [national missile defense], if deployed, would actually enhance our overall national security.'' But, again, that decision has already been made. There is no question of whether it will be deployed, but only of what kind of system and when it will be deployed. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the President, because of his Administration's deep ambivalence about the merits of missile defenses, is intentionally misrepresenting the meaning of his decision. By suggesting that deployment is still an open question-and that test failures are a main reason why-the President is implying that he or some future president has the authority to reverse a decision that has been mandated by an act of Congress that he signed into law. Short of changing that law, neither he nor any other president has such an authority.

My third conclusion is that removing unilateral testing restraints will reduce technical risk. The Clinton Administration's national missile defense testing program is focused exclusively on the option for deploying interceptors at a fixed land-based site. This rules out other approaches that may prove to be more technologically feasible and more militarily effective. For example, despite the wealth of recommendations that the U.S. pursue the sea-based option for missile defenses, the Clinton Administration's policy bars even the development and testing, let alone the deployment, of sea-based systems for national missile defense. Thus, the Clinton Administration is effectively putting all of the nation's missile defense eggs in the single basket of the ground-based missile interceptor program.

A more prudent approach would be to broaden the development options and thereby reduce the risks associated with depending on a single system. The Clinton Administration, however, rules out the testing of sea-based interceptors for national missile defense. The reason: The Clinton Administration believes that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union bars the testing of sea-based and space-based national missile defense intercept capabilities. Clinton Administration officials also believe that the ABM Treaty prohibits the testing of theater missile defense systems to demonstrate their capabilities for national missile defense.

But there are two problems with this approach to the ABM Treaty. The first is that the Administration's plan for a land-based deployment site itself would violate the ABM Treaty. Notwithstanding the fact that President Clinton has delayed the decision to proceed with construction of the land-based site in Alaska, the fact remains that the Clinton Administration has openly conceded that this site would violate the ABM Treaty and thus require changes in it. If both the land- and sea-based options are contrary to the ABM Treaty, then one wonders why one option-the sea-based one-is ruled out in principle while the other one is not. It would make more sense to decide which option makes more military sense and then to decide how best to handle the arms control implications, since clearly the Clinton Administration believes that the ABM Treaty must be modified in some fashion no matter what we do.

The second problem is that there are serious questions about the legal validity of the ABM Treaty itself. A legal study, conducted by the law firm of Hunton & Williams on behalf of The Heritage Foundation in 1998, concluded that the ABM Treaty is no longer binding on the United States because no individual state or combination of states could fulfill the obligations of the former Soviet Union. Similarly, a study conducted by the Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Douglas J. Feith, and George Miron of the law firm Feith and Zell concluded that the ABM Treaty lapsed when the Soviet Union dissolved. Finally, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency James Woolsey, a man who served as ambassador, delegate or advisor to the U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations for the last two decades of the Cold War, has observed that,

According to longstanding principles of international law, when one country has a bilateral treaty with another and is then 'succeeded' by a different state, the bilateral treaty remains in effect only if both states so affirm-the new state and its predecessor's treaty partner. . . . Unless some president submits the 1972 ABM Treaty,with its new parties, to the Senate and obtains its consent to the substantive changes, there is nothing to abrogate.

The Clinton Administration's refusal to test sea-based systems is all the more puzzling because they appear to be so promising. The Heritage Foundation's Commission on Missile Defense, most recently in March of last year, proposed the deployment of a comprehensive global missile defense system that had as its centerpiece a sea-based system. I ask that a copy of the Commission's report be made a part of the record. This system would first deploy missile defense interceptors at sea.

Since that time, support for a sea-based missile defense system has grown among members of the expert community. For example, recent press reports indicate that a Pentagon study Congress requested, but has yet to receive, states that a sea-based system would add significant capabilities to the land-based interceptors of the sort tested on July 7. I ask that a

May 27 article from The Washington Post be made a part of the record as well. Furthermore, the Chief of Naval Operations, on February 18, sent a memorandum to the Secretary of Defense stating his view that foreclosing the sea-based option "would not be in the best long-term interests of our country." I ask that a copy of this memorandum also be made a part of the record. Finally, two former high-ranking defense officials in the Clinton Administration, John Deutch and John White, have recommended consideration of the sea-based option. Their recommendation came in an article they co-wrote, along with former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, in the summer edition of the journal Foreign Policy. I ask that this article be made a part of the record as well.

I agree with the CNO that foreclosing the sea-based option would not be in the long-range interests of the country. That is why I am puzzled by some missile defense critics who oppose the testing of sea-based technologies while at the same time supporting testing for land-based systems. After all, many critics of missile defense base their opposition to land-based deployment largely on their analysis of the results of testing. They believe that testing is necessary to demonstrate that missile defenses will not work. Some have, in fact, called for more testing of land-based systems, suggesting that we do not yet know enough from test data to proceed with deployment.

But if testing is required to discern the feasibility of land-based technologies, why is it ruled out to discern the feasibility of sea-based systems? If land- and sea-based systems both violate the ABM Treaty, then why is the more promising technology-the sea-based option-being ruled out as a matter of high arms control principle? Would it not make more sense to test all available technologies and systems to find out the best solution to the problem? Surely missile defense opponents do not want to argue that willful ignorance of the feasibility of sea-based technologies is the best way to decide how to proceed.

One cannot help but draw the conclusion that the Clinton Administration (with other outside opponents of missile defense) is formulating policy more by the desire to save the ABM Treaty than to find out the best system to defend Americans from missile attack. For example, largely at the behest of the Russians, the Clinton Administration introduced a wholly novel restriction on the testing of theater missile defense systems. The Administration has barred the testing of theater missile defense interceptors against target theater missiles with speeds exceeding 5 kilometers per second or ranges exceeding 3,500 kilometers. They did this in spite of the fact no such original provision existed in the ABM Treaty; in fact, they had essentially to modify the treaty to expand its coverage over theater systems. And they did it in spite of the fact that North Korea's three-stage Taepo Dong rocket-the driving force behind the decision to deploy-has already demonstrated its capacity to deploy a theater ballistic missile that exceeds these speed and range parameters.

Out of frustration with the counterproductive nature of the Administration's restrictive testing policy, Representative David Vitter introduced last year the Realistic Tests for Realistic Threats National Security Act of 1999 (H.R. 2596). This legislation is crafted to reverse the policy of restricting the testing of theater defense systems. H.R. 2596 would require the Department of Defense to test the Navy's Theater Wide (NTW) system and the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system against target missiles that simulate the Taepo Dong-1 missile. Congress could use the opportunity presented by H.R. 2596 to establish the steps that could lead to an alternative approach to the deployment of a national missile defense system in the near term.

Specifically, the ABM Treaty has inhibited the development of a number of missile defense systems over the last two decades:

  • The Patriot missiles of Gulf War fame were deliberately downgraded during the 1970s and 1980s in order to remain in compliance with the ABM Treaty. As a result, the United States had to deploy systems less capable than they could have been during Desert Storm.

  • The Clinton Administration imposes a restriction on the testing of theater defense systems, which prevents external sensors from providing early warning tracking and targeting data about possible launches to the interceptor. Likewise, a system of space-based low altitude sensors, which would have allowed the Navy Theater Wide (NTW) system to provide limited protection from attacks on American soil, has been delayed.

  • Like the Patriot, the Navy's Aegis tracking systems and interceptors have been repeatedly downgraded in order to be compliant with the ABM Treaty. During the 1980s, the system was constrained to avoid a violation of the treaty. However, the Bush Administration later initiated a substantial upgrade to the system that would allow it to track and intercept ballistic missiles. Unfortunately, because of the ABM Treaty, the Clinton Administration severely cut and delayed this program-specifically, the radar has been limited so it can only track targets moving slower than 5 km/s and the interceptor's speed has been reduced from 4.5 km/s to 3 km/s.

  • Attention was shifted from more effective and less expensive sea- and space-based systems to more complex and expensive ground-based systems.

  • In September 1997, the Clinton Administration vetoed a follow-on to the successful 1994 Clementine mission because it would have demonstrated the maturity of technology thatcould be used to build space-based interceptors. In the end, President Clinton's adherence to the defunct ABM Treaty resulted in a termination of the space-based interceptor project.

Adherence to a non-existent treaty has prevented the United States from developing the means to counter emerging threats and challenges. Undoubtedly, as rogue states develop more advanced missiles, they will attempt to deploy countermeasures capable of defeating the planned, limited, ground-based system. As a result, the United States must put increased emphasis on the development of space-based platforms that will be able to destroy enemy missiles during their boost-phase, when countermeasures are still contained inside the booster rocket. However, under the current Administration's policy, development of such essential systems is prohibited. The capability to counter enemy countermeasures can be developed. The Clinton Administration has chosen not to do so.

My fourth conclusion is there appears to be management and quality control problems in the current national missile defense program. This conclusion is suggested by the outcome of the July 7 test. As I said before, the failure occurred in the booster rocket, technology that is decades old. This fact inevitably raises the question of whether the results of the national missile defense test in July demonstrate a deeper problem with the way the missile defense program has been managed for the past seven and a half years.

A Pentagon panel headed by former Air Force Chief of Staff, General Larry Welch (ret.), concluded in 1998 that a lack of thorough preflight testing caused inadequacies in basic engineering and management discipline of the missile defense program. The end result has been a "hurry-up-and-get-a-success-before-they-cancel-the-program" mentality. The tendency has been for engineers and project managers to focus too much on low-risk tests that really do not move the program forward. As Phil Coyle, the Pentagon's top testing official, observes, "A more aggressive testing program will be necessary to achieve an effective capability by 2005 or for even several years thereafter."


The threat to the United States posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles is growing. It will likely accelerate as long as America remains vulnerable to missile attack and hostile countries see an opportunity to use ballistic missiles to intimidate the world's only superpower. Despite the outcome of the July 7 test, the Pentagon must move forward quickly with the development and deployment of missile defenses for America. To that end, Congress and the executive branch should:

  • Make every effort to field missile defenses as soon as technologically possible. The United States made a decision to deploy a national missile defense system when the President signed the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 into law. Deciding not to deploy such a defense is not an option. The Pentagon must continue to develop and test missile defense technologies with the goal of deploying a defense against small-scale strikes as soon as possible.
  • Abandon the policy of trying to revive the defunct ABM Treaty and lift all unilateral restrictions on the testing of missile defense systems. The nation cannot afford to conduct missile defense development and testing programs with one hand tied behind its back. If the United States is ever going to field an effective defense against both theater and strategic ballistic missiles-a global missile defense capability-it will have to recognize that the ABM Treaty no longer serves its interests. This recognition should start with lifting the restrictions on testing.
  • Recommend a sea-based element in all missile defense deployment plans. Now that the President has recommended a delay in the construction of the land-based site in Alaska, the Pentagon should give more serious consideration of the sea-based option. According to news reports, the Pentagon has produced a report for Congress that recommends inclusion of a sea-based element because it is technologically feasible and would enhance a missile defense system's overall effectiveness. It also would reduce the technical risks that undermine ground-based systems.
  • Congress should be holding hearings at the earliest possible time about alternative technical options like the sea-based system. The Congress should take the President at his word that he wants more time to explore the best options on how to defend the country from missile attack. To that end, sea-based systems must be considered as part of the mix. The Senate and House Armed Services Committees should hold hearings to consider a sea-based architecture for NMD, what the funding requirements for such a system would be, a possible deployment timetable and a program to remove the impediments imposed by the Clinton Administration's severe testing restraints.
  • Stick to the flight test schedule for the ground-based interceptor program. The July 7 test was only the third flight test in a schedule of 19 such tests. The Pentagon should continue conducting the scheduled flight tests to refine and perfect missile defense technology as soon as possible. I am very much concerned about reports that the Pentagon is planning to delay tests until next year. The National Missile Defense Act says that deployment should begin "as soon as is technologically possible." This goal cannot be achieved if the schedule is relaxed.
  • Tighten management and improve quality control in the missile defense program. The failure of the interceptor to destroy the target missile was caused by a failure in the proper staging of the rocket-something the technology has been able to do for 40 years. It indicates that the Administration may not be properly managing or assuring the military's research and development programs. The next Administration must correct the deficiencies in the current program by giving ballistic missile defense the priority and funding it deserves, developing a realistic testing program designed to learn from so called "failures" and successes alike, and reducing the bureaucracy involved in the program's administration. This is the only way to alleviate the defense mindset that has plagued the program for the last seven and a half years, reducing quality control and causing failures in 40-year-old technology.


Mr. Chairman, the decision to deploy a national missile defense system was made when Congress enacted the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. The Clinton Administration should be faithfully executing that law by fashioning a missile defense program that will field a system as soon as technologically possible. The results of the July 7 test reveal that at best the missile defense program is not well-managed. Worse, the Clinton Administration is pursuing the nation's missile defense program in a way that fails to take advantage of the full array of technological options that are available to it.

Nowhere is this shortcoming more apparent than in the area of testing. The Clinton Administration has chosen to impose restraints on the testing of missile defense systems. If missile defense testing continues to be managed in this way, testing restraints will produce the self-fulfilling prophecy of ineffective systems. By intentionally eschewing promising avenues of development, such as sea-based systems, the Administration has chosen a course that will inevitably result in a deployment option that will not be optimally effective. How could it be otherwise if effectiveness is not the optimum criteria for testing?

The Administration's strategy may or may not be intentional. After all, Administration officials must be aware of what happened with ABM systems in the early 1970s. They were sacrificed as a bargaining chip in arms control precisely because critics argued that they would not be effective enough to defend the country. If the nation has to choose between an ineffective limited defense against ballistic missiles, or arms control, arms control will always win the debate.

This trap must be avoided at all costs. The American people deserve more than a limited and ineffective missile defense system. And they deserve more than the promises of arms control. Instead, they deserve a missile defense system that is as effective as possible. This means that the Pentagon must test all available options, including sea-based and space-based defenses, plus improvements in theater missile defense systems. Doing anything less would violate not only the law but also the trust of the American people in their government to provide for the common defense.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.



Kim Holmes

Acting Senior Vice President, Research