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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  • Steve Hildreth

    I think part of the concern that’s been raised as a result of the Postol/Lewis piece links back to the Patriot Desert Storm experience. Specifically, what does a ‘successful intercept’ really mean?

    Most people I know think a ‘successful intercept’ should mean that the warhead was destroyed or rendered incapable of delivering its potential destructive power to the intended target or anything else of value. A ‘successful intercept’ shouldn’t mean, for instance and in the minds of many, that a warhead fell some place other than the predicted impact area but could still deliver a destructive payload somewhere on the ground. For purpose of illustration, if a succcessful intercept stops a ballistic missile warhead from hitting its intended target in downtown Tokyo, but instead is disrupted in its trejectory and proceeds to hit and destroy a suburb in Nagano, was that intercept really successful?

    What I’d like to see or discussed further is whether flight test data demonstrates that warheads are actually destroyed, and what any subsequent debris field may look like (if there is any) on the ground relative to the predicted impact of the threat missile.

    Thanks for getting this out, but I think there is still room for clarification, imo.

  • Mark Gubrud

    This article attempts to deflect the finding that at best 2 out of 10 “successful intercepts” would have destroyed the warheads, but Lehner at best flies past the target. His closest approach to Postol and Lewis’s research is to say that the professors

    “had no access to classified telemetry data showing the complete destruction of the target missiles”

    which seems to carefully avoid asserting the complete destruction of the warheads or any evidence that warheads, if present, would have been destroyed. If I understand Lehner, he is saying telemetry data exists which shows something he calls “complete destruction of the target missiles,” but why doesn’t he directly rebut Postol and Lewis by asserting that the data shows assured destruction of the warheads? That is suggested, but not directly claimed, probably because it cannot be supported.

    Even less credible is the claim of

    “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.”

    Lehner does not dispute Postol and Lewis’s claim that the publicly-released videos reveal where the target missiles were struck, or the accuracy of their data. So, in case any potential adversary is really interested, and this hadn’t occurred to them before, thanks to Postol and Lewis they now do know where the target missiles were struck. So, Lehner can go ahead and release the sensor views now if they really show that the warheads were destroyed in spite of the impacts missing the warheads.

  • N.Polanycia

    This is all and great to be able to shoot down a incoming missle…but what happens to the payload on the incoming missle. By intercepting the incoming missle but not nutralizing the payload; what you have done is dispersed the payload contaminent into the atmosphere!!!!!!!So instead of having a localized effect from the incoming missle impact you have a global effect. I believe we need to take the next step to nutralize the payload whatever it would be.

  • Ryan Crierie

    Even if we take Postol’s hypothesis at face value — looking at his imagery and the centered aimpoints — SM-3 still achieved kills.

    The enemy warhead isn’t going to do much after the vehicle carrying it was hit by a SM-3 at very very high speeds (17,000 MPH).

    If the warhead’s fusing system has survived the intensity of the impact (shock is fun); then the warhead will completely miss or burn up in the atmosphere — remember that RVs are ballistic — they can’t change their course after being released from the warhead carrier.

    So the warhead carrier’s been turned to vapor; and the ICBM RV is now tumbling in space — it’s not going to be correctly oriented to survive re-entry without burning up.

    If by some miracle it survives re-entry AND the fuzing system survived the shock of a 17,000 MPH impact, it’s going to miss by such a great distance it’s worthless.

  • http://crowlspace.com/ Adam

    Seems there’s an argument over the definition of a “successful kill”, but I can’t see any evidence presented by the critics why a non-functional, non-targeted missile payload tumbling to a high-speed impact should be seen as a threat anymore. It’s a high-speed piece of junk without viable terminal guidance. If it is a “threat”, except in the same way anything falling from the stratosphere is a ‘threat’, then please show us all. Otherwise it sounds like the DoD is justified in claiming successes.

  • John L

    The argument I seem to be reading is that we shouldn’t be so excited about our ability to defend ourselves from ballistic missiles because the collateral damage might result. That seems nonsensical to me – these warheads are not just flying bullets that will do the same amount of damage no matter where they impact. They will probably be carrying either chemical or nuclear warheads, and the collateral damage will be extremely small by any and every measure to the full effect of the warhead should it properly arrive at it’s target.

    Do I want the debris to fall on my house? No. But I’d much rather it hit only a house than incinerate the entirety of New York City. Let’s worry about the debris, but let’s not shut down or derail the program because of follow-on problems that are significantly less problematic than the initial threat. It seems like cutting off our nose to spite our faces – which, as Americans, I admit we are very good at doing.