Editorial: Don't Scrimp On Testing For Missile Defenses
Aviation Week & Space Technology
03 March 1997

The U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization has a daunting task: destroy a missile in flight by hitting it with an interceptor before it inflicts damage on ground forces and civilians. That's an awfully tough assignment given the size and speed of missile threats, the areas to be covered and targeting problems.

Technologists are confident new sensors, computers and kinetic kill vehicles can do the job. If they are right, 21st century allied battlefields and the U.S. homeland could be shielded by operational missile defense systems.

But there is a potential weak link in the chain of development, evaluation and deployment, and that is testing. Budget realities and the high cost of firing scores of interceptors against targets have forced test teams to rely heavily on computer-based testing.

Computers and software have come a long way. But many of us easily recall a bomb released from an aircraft wing snapping nose up and slicing through a horizontal stabilizer, although simulations indicated that could not happen.

When it comes to developing complex weapon systems that absolutely must work in combat, simulations are hardly as comforting as hard-core flight data. Most of the debilitating flaws already found in missile defense flight tests would not have been uncovered in the laboratory.

Currently, ballistic missile defense (BMD) is comparable to the early days of ICBMs or the Sidewinder missile. Both these programs eventually succeeded, but there were many failures along the way. Leaders at the time pressed on because there was a serious Soviet threat, and they knew advancing the technology would not come easily.

Much of the meandering of U.S. weapons development is due to a less urgent threat perception. But theater ballistic missiles already have killed U.S. and allied troops. The threat is real, and it calls for deployment of effective defenses.

The concern is how the pressure to perform might warp engineering judgment, threat assessment and test plans into a "success-oriented" binge of wishful thinking--a pattern not unknown in the history of missile defense schemes. To their credit, Thaad program managers do not appear to have dumbed down their upcoming test and are still including the first direct use of their new radar.

But already the testing has been cut back. In response to Thaad delays, the Army reduced the number of tests to 14 from 20. Is this the proper approach to a program that is having technical problems and missing targets--to cut the number of tests?

If the Defense Dept. pares back Thaad because of another failure, the lesson to others will be clear: avoid challenging tests, create the appearance of success and hope there are no dormant deficiencies.

Of particular concern should be countermeasures, which would appear to be cheaper than the techniques to foil them. They are beginning to be addressed in tests, but more needs to be done. A "red team" of a few dozen bright engineers should be given $100 million to secretly develop and build countermeasures, to replicate what clever Russian or Chinese designers must be expected to put on the world market.

The new U.S. BMD systems should be flight-tested against these devices. The results might be embarrassing, but it's a better way to learn than in combat, as happened to the Patriot in the Persian Gulf war. This would be a real step toward the "robustness" that leaders say they want.

Funds should be reallocated from national missile defense development to testing the more near-term theater systems. BMD systems need to show first that they are reliable against simpler theater threats. A convincing proof of that will strengthen the technical case for national missile defenses.

The Pentagon and its contractors will do their best to develop first-class missile defenses with the resources they are given. When failures crop up in actual flight tests-- as they will--Congress and the Administration must be prepared to accept the setbacks, then provide what it takes to ensure a viable system is fielded.

It's a new technology, and it will be expensive to get the bugs out. Some failure in antimissile tests must be accepted as the price of progress.