When the New York Times covers a weapons program we tend to take note, in part because they do so it so rarely. And when they put it on the front page, above the fold, we take even more note. The Times did just that this morning, trumpeting a tale about how a veteran missile defense sceptic at MIT, Ted Postol, and a Cornell University colleague, George Lewis, performed an analysis of SM-3 tests and came away convinced that the system does not work very well.
Now my first reaction was deep skepticism. After all this has appeared to be the one major anti-missile system that has performed pretty well and even shot down a dead NRO spy satellite. But I’m not possessed of the sort of math skills and years of experience that Postol has, or that the congressional aides who follow missile defense possess have. So I contacted the Hill aides since Postol can boast of the very impressive feat of having accurately skewered the Patriot missile system during the first Gulf War at a time when it was being showered with praise by everyone, including the president of the United States.
The Hill reaction was, at best, muted. One of the best informed aides put it this way: “I think in the end that SM-3 will work. The test process is going slowly, some of which is by design. MDA has probably oversold it at this point, but it is a much more successful test program than the GBIs. Postal is right to be vigilant, but [MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick] O’Reilly is a lot more methodical, technical and cautious than his predecessor,” the aide said.
A second congressional aide dismissed Postol’s critique out of hand. “And didn’t we see this same story a few years ago with GBI instead of SM-3?” the aide said, noting that Postol doesn’t appear to have been proven right, although the program did stumble along for years before improving its performance.
The Missile Defense Agency did not take the Times’ story lightly, speaking with reporters this afternoon to hammer away at what they said were inaccuracies in the story.
Here’s the core of the Times story:
The analysis looked at 10 tests between 2002 and 2009 — all of which the agency hailed as successful intercepts.
But the scientists found that the kill vehicle hit the warhead only once or twice. The rest of the time, the interceptor struck the rocket body — a much larger target.
In combat, the scientists added, “the warhead would have not been destroyed, but would have continued toward the target.”
Well, when the SM-3 hits the missile — on the warhead or not — ” it obliterates the target,” MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said today. “It hits it so hard and so fast that it causes catastrophic failure of the target.”
The editors at the Times should have wondered why the only lawmaker’s quote about the critics’ concerns came from Rep. John Tierney, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform’s national security subcommittee, and not from any members of the defense committees. Tierney, while a senior lawmaker, does not possess the expert staff that the defense committees boast. If Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a thoughtful skeptic of missile defense, had spoken up and said he was concerned, then we should all at least look more closely at the SM-3.