Star Wars revisited: shooting fish in a barrel

Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) has been underway in the United States over 20 years, managed since 2002 by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. The objective has been to disable long-range ballistic missiles at high altitudes, by striking them with interceptor missiles. The program sprang out of “Star Wars”–the Strategic Defense Initiative begun in 1983 during the first Reagan administration.

Efforts were inhibited by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 between the U.S. and the former USSR, and only research occurred at first. During the first Walker Bush administration, the U.S. withdrew from the treaty and began full-scale development and deployment–then called the National Missile Defense program, later renamed GMD. Following a longstanding pattern of problems with military programs–”buy before fly”–about 30 GMD interceptors were deployed to the field years ago, long before any successful test.

Test fatigue: At a cost of around $40 billion, the GMD program conducted 40 test flights between June, 1997, and August, 2017, with about half involving some type of missile interception (listed in the GMD Wikipedia article). About half the flights are officially marked as “success.” However, the most recent one during May, 2017, was the first to disable a long-range missile.

To alert readers, the 2017 test was unconvincing. The target missile’s range of travel was just barely enough to make it a long-range missile: less than two-thirds the range between North Korea and Los Angeles, which is the longest potential range achieved so far by North Korea. Much more discouraging: the target’s path was aimed directly toward the interceptor missile, making interception far easier than a wide-angle path.

All but a few of the GMD interceptors–ones used in testing–have been deployed to Alaska, where they have midcourse access to flight paths between North Korea and places in the continental United States. However, using that access would require interceptions at angles of up to 90 degrees. No test so far has explored the practical need for wide-angle interception at very high speed and altitude.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 4, 2017


Robert Burns and Lolita Baldor, Pentagon missile defense program scores direct hit, Associated Press, May 31, 2017

Robert Burns, Leery of North Korea, U.S. plans first test of ICBM intercept, Associated Press, May 27, 2017

Laura Grego, The upcoming GMD missile defense test, Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), May 25, 2017

Cristina Chaplain, et al., Missile defense: some progress, U.S. Government Accountability Office, May, 2017

Ken Dilanian, U.S. may not be able to shoot down North Korean missiles, say experts, NBC News, April 19, 2017

Andrew Glass, President Reagan calls for launching Star Wars in 1983, Politico, March 23, 2017

David Willman, Flaw in the homeland missile defense system, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2017

Ground-based Midcourse Defense program overview, U.S. Missile Defense Agency, 2016

Thomas Karako, Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC), 2015

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