Missile Defense Agency Responds to New York Times Article

By Richard Lehner, Missile Defense Agency

An article published in the May 17 edition of The New York Times cited an assessment by Dr. Ted Postol and Dr. George Lewis regarding testing of the Standard Missile -3 (SM-3) now deployed with the U.S. Navy.

This sea-based interceptor missile is designed to intercept and destroy short to medium-range ballistic missiles using “hit to kill” technology, which means that the interceptor collides directly with the target missile or warhead, and destroys the target using only the force of the collision.  The allegation that target intercepts were reported as successful when they were not successful is wrong, and the data presented by the authors in the article is flawed, inaccurate and misleading.

In each successful intercept test the target missile was destroyed by the Aegis BMD/SM-3 system due to the extreme kinetic energy resulting from the “hit to kill” intercept.  In each instance, the mission objective of “hit to kill” of the unitary or separating target was achieved. 

Postol and Lewis apparently based their assessment on publicly released photos gleaned from a sensor mounted aboard the SM-3 and postulated what they perceived to be the interceptor’s impact point although they had no access to classified telemetry data showing the complete destruction of the target missiles, or subsequent sensor views of the intercept that were not publicly released so as not to reveal to potential adversaries exactly where the target missile was struck.

Actually, the publicly released videos, which can be seen at www.mda.mil/news/gallery_aegis.html, and from which the still photos were extracted, show infrared images from both interceptor and airborne sensors demonstrating the complete destruction of the target missiles.

All of the tests cited by the authors as “misses” were tests involving short-range unitary targets, when the warhead remains attached to the booster rocket.  These tests were correctly described by the Missile Defense Agency as successful intercepts, because they successfully intercepted the target.  Post-test analysis from collected telemetry showed that the interceptor’s kill vehicle impacted the target body or warhead within inches of the expected impact point that was calculated to maximize damage against a variety of warhead types.

The first three Aegis BMD tests (FM-2, FM-3, FM-4) conducted in 2002 are cited as “misses” based upon the assessments of Postol and Lewis.  These tests were the very first intercept attempts of the Aegis missile defense SM-3 system using prototype interceptors, and the objective for each of these early tests was simply to determine if a ballistic missile target could be destroyed by a new interceptor, the SM-3, fired and guided by a ship at sea using “hit to kill” technology. 

Since they were the first tests using prototype interceptors, expensive mock warheads weren’t used in the tests since specific lethality capability wasn’t a test objective—the objective was to hit the target missile.  Contrary to the assertions of Postol and Lewis, all three tests resulted in successful target hits with the unitary ballistic missile target destroyed. This provided empirical evidence that ballistic missile intercepts could in fact be accomplished at sea using interceptors launched from Aegis ships.

After successful completion of these early developmental tests, the test program progressed from just “hitting the target” to one of determining lethality and proving the operationally configured Aegis SM-3 Block I and SM-3 Block 1A system.  These tests were the MDA’s most comprehensive and realistic test series, resulting in the Operational Test and Evaluation Force’s October 2008 Evaluation Report stating that Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Block 04 3.6 System  was operationally effective and suitable for transition to the Navy.

Since 2002, a total of 19 SM-3 missiles have been fired in 16 different test events resulting in 16 intercepts against threat-representative full-size and more challenging subscale unitary and full-size targets with separating warheads.   In addition, a modified Aegis BMD/SM-3 system successfully destroyed a malfunctioning U.S. satellite by hitting the satellite in the right spot to negate the hazardous fuel tank at the highest closure rate of any ballistic missile defense technology ever attempted.

From 1991 through 2010 the Missile Defense Agency has conducted 66 full scale hit-to-kill lethality sled tests and 138 sub-scale hit-to-kill light gas gun tests covering all MDA interceptor types against nuclear, unitary chemical, chemical submunitions, biological bomblets and high-explosive submunition threats.  Eighteen of these tests were specifically devoted to the current SM-3 kinetic warhead system.  This extensive database of lethality testing has conclusively demonstrated that MDA’s weapon systems are highly lethal against ballistic missile threats when they engage within their accuracy and velocity specifications.

The authors of the SM-3 study cited only tests involving unitary targets, and chose not to cite the five successful intercepts in six attempts against separating targets, which, because of their increased speed and small size, pose a much more challenging target for the SM-3 than a much larger unitary target missile. They also did not mention the fact the system is successfully intercepting targets much smaller than probable threat missiles on a routine basis, and have attained test scores that many other Defense Department programs aspire to attain.

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