Hill Shrugs At NYT’s SM-3 Critique

Hill Shrugs At NYT’s SM-3 Critique

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.

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Although Postol was correct on the Patriot in the early 90’s, his credibility for me went down the drain in March 2009 when he suddenly began advocating for a air-launched hit to kill solution as the best missile defense solution and less than a month later Lockheed Martin made an unsolicited $173M offer for, you guessed it, an air launched hit to kill solution.

Postol advocating for ALHTK solution March 12, 2009: http://​www​.wired​.com/​d​a​n​g​e​r​r​o​o​m​/​2​0​0​9​/​0​3​/​s​c​i​e​n​t​ist

Lockheed’s unsolicited ALHTK proposal April 7, 2009: http://​www​.flightglobal​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​2​0​0​9​/​0​4​/​0​7/3

We’ve seen him critique GBI, Patriot (Raytheon’s, not Lockheed’s) and now SM-3. When I see similar analysis of THAAD and PAC-3/MSE (both Lockheed programs), he’ll regain some credibility with me.

You’re wrong about the Tierney point. He’s a senior legislator with access to the same information that Levin, as SASC Chair has. The big difference is that the Oversight committee doesn’t sign the check for MDA and SM-3. Plain and simple the oversight has no vested financial interest seeing the program continue. They’re always going to be more critical. Go review the Oversight vs SASC hearings on missile defense over the past 3 years, and ask yourself, who signs MDAs check?

Self appointed experts like this are royal pains. The press eats it up, but (as my drill sgt used to say) he’s more wrong than two boys kissing in church.
He has no access to the threat assessments. Has not been to the training, has not seen the real video. Yeah he’s such and expert.

He needs to STFU.

The New York Times is not worth reading.
This biased article is an example of why.

The SM-3 is the best hit to kill vehicle to date, even better then THAAD. No system is perfect, but the alternative is worse with no defensive capabilities at all. The New York Times carrying any news about defense should be viewed with great skepticism. The NY Times is a liberal staff with an agenda of it’s own.

Fire early, fire often… Probability of kill goes up, problem solved… move on.

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