Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Boost-Phase BMD Untenable Says NRC

In a report released to the public today, a study committee of the National Research Council (NRC) made plain its view that the present US Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system should be reorganized. In particular, it was the opinion of this panel of eminent scientists and engineers that the present tripartite BMD system, made up of boost-phase, mid-course, and terminal defense systems, is burdened by a boost-phase defense system which is untenable, by virtue of the inadequate state of present technology; i.e., for limited attacks by a rogue state armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the words of the NRC panel, in their Major Recommendation #1:

"The Department of Defense should not invest any more money or resources in systems for boost-phase missile defense. Boost-phase missile defense is not practical or cost effective under real-world conditions for the foreseeable future. All boost-phase intercept systems suffer from severe reach-versus-timeavailable
constraints. This is true for kinetic kill interceptors launched from Earth’s surface, from airborne platforms, or from space. It is also true for a directed-energy (laser) weapon in the form of the airborne laser, where reach is limited by problems of propagating enough beam over long distances in the atmosphere and focusing 
it onto a small spot, even with full use of sophisticated adaptive optical techniques. While there may be special cases of a small country such as North Korea launching relatively slow burning liquid-propellant ICBMs in which some boost-phase intercepts are possible, the required basing locations for interceptors are not likely  to be politically acceptable."

The NRC committee went on to say that savings accrued from the boost-phase program should be used to bolster more plausible options already available to both the mid-course and terminal defense systems. They said, in their Major Recommendation #2:

"The Missile Defense Agency should re-institute an aggressive, balanced mid-course discrimination research and development effort focused on the synergy between [ground-based] X-band radar data and concurrent interceptor observation while closing on the threat ['observations' being made by the interceptor itself]. ... "

"A continuing program of test and analysis should be implemented to maintain the technical capacity that will be needed to support an adequate level of discrimination as new countermeasures are developed and deployed."

"A serious effort to gather and understand data from past and future flight tests and experiments (including flights of U.S. missiles) from the full range of sensors and to make full use of the extensive data collected from past experiments to generate robust discrimination techniques and algorithms."

"The committee believes that the effort required for success in this endeavor does not need to be overlarge but does require that high-quality expertise be brought to bear. The annual budget outlay, if planned correctly, can be modest compared to current expenditures."

Also, in Major Recommendation #3:

"The Missile Defense Agency should strengthen its systems analysis and engineering capability in order to do a better job of assessing system  performance and evaluating new initiatives before significant funding is committed.  Cost-benefit analysis should be central to that capability. ... "

Then, in Major Recommendation #5:

"...  An additional interceptor site ... together with the recommended radar additions provides ... coverage of virtually the entire United States and Canada against the sort of threat that can prudently be expected to emerge from North Korea or Iran over the coming decade or so. The recommended evolution would add one additional site in the United States in the northeast, together with additional X-band radars to more effectively protect the eastern United States and Canada, particularly against Iranian ICBM threats should they emerge. This improved capability obviates the need for early intercept from bases in Europe, unless they are required for European defense."

(See: "Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternative", September 11, 2012,
ISBN / 978-0-309-21610-4 / 260 pages, available from The National Academies Press at


Although appearing to be at odds with parts of the Obama Administration's ongoing BMD program, this NRC report  does also encourage cost savings based on the termination of inadequate programs and failing strategies, and the strengthening of  those approaches to BMD which are arguably the most likely to succeed.

Based on hard-earned Israeli experience, it seems clear that BMD is a valuable resource, and not a fantasy, whenever area-defense against short-range, or even intermediate-range, missile attack is contemplated. But, whether BMD can eventually function satisfactorily against intercontinental range missile threats remains to be seen. And, although success against a limited attack of this sort by a rogue state is plausible, why would such a state focus such an attack on a position of such obvious apparent strength?

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