The Pentagon’s $10 billion--and counting--missile defense system is under intense scrutiny after new reports suggest that the entire operation is a “boondoggle” that isn’t capable of protecting the United States.
After the September 11 terrorist attack, the Pentagon allocated billions of dollars to build a massive defense system that was supposed to have the capabilities to identify and destroy any type of missile heading toward U.S. shores.
Just yesterday, the top official of the U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command, Adm. William Gortney, told reporters that he believes North Korea has the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the West Coast of the U.S. with a nuclear weapon from a mobile launcher.
Though Gortney said he was concerned about North Korea’s capabilities, he said he was “confident” that the U.S. has the ability to “knock it down.”
Those comments come just days after reports highlight an extremely grim picture of some of the U.S.’s major missile defense systems.
In fact, more than a decade and $10 billion later, at least three of those programs have been scrapped—while a fourth is under intense scrutiny for not working properly while continuing to rack up an enormous price tag at the taxpayers’ expense.
A new investigation by the Los Angeles Times concluded that the $2.2 billion Sea Based X-Band Radar, which is responsible for spotting enemy missiles, doesn’t work and is essentially nothing more than an enormous waste of tax dollars that has left the U.S. vulnerable to an attack.
The report says that although SBX is supposed to scope out missiles soaring toward the United States, it has an extremely “narrow field of vision” that could prevent it from identifying a large stream of missiles.
Pentagon officials, for their part, are fiercely pushing back against those allegations—calling the paper’s description of the program’s capabilities “totally inaccurate.”
“The Combatant Commanders who operate our missile defense system have time and again stressed the importance of the role SBX has played and continues to play during real-world operations, and the radar has also performed extremely well supporting a large number of tests of our ground and sea-based missile defense systems,” Rick Lehner, an official from the Missile Defense Agency, said.
He disputed the LA Times’ description of the program that classifies SBX’s “narrow field of vision” as a flaw, saying its narrow focus is what makes it valuable.
“What makes the X-band radar so effective is its ability to use a finely focused beam to track and identify small objects at great distances,” Lehner said. “For missile defense, this is especially important in order to discriminate countermeasures and debris from the incoming warhead.”
He explained that SBX’s sensors are supposed to detect and track targets. The other land-based and sea-based radars cue the SBX and other X-band radars…to zero in on specific objects to provide precise target tracking and discrimination in order to guide the interceptor missile to intercept and destroy the lethal object using only the force of a direct collision, called "hit to kill" technology.”
Lehner also refuted the article’s claims that SBX has sat on the sidelines in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.
“Contrary to assertions that the SBX has been "mothballed," the SBX has deployed 13 times since 2006 and successfully participated in 11 individual flight tests and "real world" operational scenarios. It will continue to be a vital asset for many years to come.” Lehner said.
“It’s been operational for years,” he said adding that “the SBX has been and continues to be a vital asset for both homeland and regional missile defense.”
While the DOD defended SBX, it didn’t have much to say about the three other programs that cost nearly $8 billion only to be scrapped years later.
First, there’s the Airborne Laser, which was supposed to be a fleet of Boeing 747’s that could fire laser beams at enemy missiles. That idea didn’t pan out, since officials realized that the planes would have to get dangerously close to its targets—putting pilots at an unnecessary risk. That program was canceled in 2012 after more than 10 years of testing at a price tag of $5.3 billion.
Then, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor was scrapped in 2009 after costing about $1.7 billion. The program was a rocket that was created to be fired from land or sea to intercept and destroy missiles shortly after they were launched. However, after six years of testing, officials concluded that the interceptor couldn’t fit on any Navy ship—so, it couldn’t be fired from sea. And apparently the missile had to be positioned so close to its target that it would put its operators at risk.
The third program was the Multiple Kill Vehicle, which was a bunch of small interceptor missiles that were supposed to be able to stop an enemy missile as well as any accompanying decoys. However, it was shelved after four years of development at a cost of about $700 million.
“These expensive flops stem in part from a climate of anxiety after Sept. 11, 2001, heightened by warnings from defense hawks that North Korea and Iran were close to developing long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States. The Times’ David Willman wrote. “The project not only wasted taxpayer money but left a hole in the nation’s defenses. The money spent on it could have gone toward land-based radars with a greater capability to track long-range missiles, according to experts who have studied the issue.”
Still, DOD officials defend the department’s “excellent” investment in all four of the programs.
“We are very confident of our ability … and we will continue to conduct extensive research, development and testing of new technologies to ensure we keep pace with the threat,” Vice Adm. James D. Syring said in a statement.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: