The nation’s trouble-plagued missile defense system registered a success Sunday when a ground-based interceptor fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base destroyed a mock enemy warhead launched from the Marshall Islands.
Word of the successful intercept, which occurred above Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, came from a group that lobbies for missile-defense spending and was confirmed by a person with access to the test result.
A rocket could be seen rising from Vandenberg about 12:57 p.m., according to residents in Santa Barbara County. Conditions were mild, with midday temperatures in the mid-60s and visibility of about 10 miles.
Sunday’s test flight carried high stakes for the nation’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, called GMD, which was deployed a decade ago and has so far cost about $40 billion.
In each of the system’s three most recent tests, a rocket-interceptor fired from Vandenberg, on the Santa Barbara County coast, failed to collide with and destroy a mock enemy warhead launched from an atoll in the Marshall Islands, 4,900 miles away.
Before Sunday, the Missile Defense Agency had conducted 16 tests of the system’s ability to intercept such a target; half failed.
The GMD system was intended to shield the United States from long-range missiles that might be launched by an adversary such as North Korea or Iran, which would have limited arsenals in comparison to a superpower.
The system’s roots trace to the Strategic Defense Initiative, promoted by President Reagan in 1983 as a ground-and-space-based missile shield capable of rendering nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." No such system was ever deployed.
When President George W. Bush, in 2002, ordered the more limited GMD deployed by 2004, he "hoped to carry Reagan’s legacy forward," Bush’s secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, wrote in his memoir "Known and Unknown."
A Los Angeles Times article on June 15 reported that the GMD system's hurried deployment and expansion denied engineers time to resolve myriad technical problems. Repeated difficulties emerged with the interceptors’ 5-foot-long kill vehicles, which, once boosted into space, rely on a heat-seeking sensor and other complex technology to pursue and destroy an incoming warhead.
The first model of the kill vehicle, CE-1, was not flight-tested against a mock warhead until September 2006 — two years after the vehicles had been placed in the silos at Vandenberg and Ft. Greely, Alaska. The article also said senior Pentagon officials had overstated GMD’s capability while congressional proponents fought to keep expanding it.
After a director of the Missile Defense Agency, Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, slowed expansion of the system in 2009 in order to spend more money on resolving its technical malfunctions, he was overruled by then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.
Riki Ellison, founder and chairman of a group that lobbies for missile defense spending, responded to The Times’ report with a letter to the newspaper and remarks posted by his organization’s website.
Ellison attributed the GMD system’s test failures and overall reliability problems to decisions by the Obama administration and O’Reilly, who was appointed by Bush and served as the missile agency director from 2008 to late 2012.
Sunday’s flight test, Ellison said in the remarks posted by his Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, will "define the future for GMD, its investment and its leadership." The advocacy group’s advisory board includes two previous Missile Defense Agency directors.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said that regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s test, she views GMD as an unreliable system that needs a far-reaching overhaul.
When she weighs other aspects of military spending that are facing cuts, Sanchez said, she does not see the justification for expanding GMD, as the Obama administration plans to do by placing 14 additional interceptors at Ft. Greely by late 2017.
"They don’t work right now," Sanchez said, referring to the 30 interceptors now in the below-ground silos at Vandenberg and Ft. Greely. "I would prefer to put something out that works."
Congressional supporters of GMD were hoping in the run-up to the test that a successful intercept would provide a stronger basis to sustain funding for it.
The Missile Defense Agency had invited some congressional staffers to join the military and contractor personnel who were to view the test on closed-circuit feeds from Vandenberg and from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.