Decades ago, nuclear safety drills were common practice throughout the United States.  “Duck and cover” taught an entire generation of Americans to fear the possibility of a death by nuclear weapon, and potentially with good reason, as the United States and Soviet Union raced one another to produce ever larger stockpiles of the most powerful weapons ever created by man.  While the drills themselves likely wouldn’t have dramatically increased survival rates if a nuke were to detonate nearby, the experiences informed Americans who would one day grow up and take the reigns of their country – Americans who now find themselves in positions of authority in both the private and public sectors.

Perhaps it’s because of those years of fear that the United States now has a broad missile defense network composed of two primary schools of thought, and why today’s children don’t have to spend any of their day cowering beneath a desk.  Although the number of nuclear weapons in the world hasn’t decreased by much (if at all), and the number of nations that possess them has grown, we’ve come to expect our government and military to provide us with an invisible but capable shield, meant to deter a potential aggressor from ever pushing the button, then, god willing, we expect an inbound missile to be stopped before it reaches U.S. soil, were it ever to come to that.

Therein lies the two methodologies employed by the U.S. government’s efforts to prevent a nuke from ever reaching those American school children: the first is mutually assured destruction, the second is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD.

Mutually assured destruction is nothing but a fancy way of saying that launching nuclear weapons at the United States will result in us raining hellfire back down on your nation as well.  The way the words roll off the tongue does little to betray the playground psychology employed in its design – but the logic holds none the less.  Mutually assured destruction has successfully held the world’s other superpowers at bay from using their own nuclear weapons since their inception, and likely will continue to serve as our primary means of nuclear defense against nations like Russia for some time to come.

Recent decades, however, have presented a different kind of nuclear threat.  Small groups of extremists, or even small under-developed nations headed by despots, are not nearly as dissuaded by the promise of their own destruction – and indeed, that promise may be difficult to keep in many cases.  While Russia launching nukes could be met with a flurry of American flag laden missiles heading back in their direction, a single water-based platform and a dozen resourceful terrorists could launch a nuclear weapon toward the mainland of the United States without fear of any such reprisal – and that’s where GMD comes in.

The GMD system relies on missiles launched from the ground that head into low earth-orbit.  From there, the multi-stage rocket separates from the five-foot-long “kill vehicle” that uses internal thrusters to navigate into an intercept course with an inbound nuclear missile – causing it to detonate well before ever reaching American soil.  While fear of reprisal can stop global super powers from launching their nukes at us, only the means to shoot a nuke down can effectively protect the United States from the nuclear equivalent of a “lone wolf” organization choosing to go out with a bang.

The problem is… there seems to be an issue with the missiles we’re relying on to do that.

The American GMD missile system has been met with repeated failures in testing, many of which have been tied to the platform’s thrusters intended to keep the missile traveling on course.  The most recent test, which was called a “success” by those who built the missile in their report to the Pentagon, suffered a failure in one of its four thrusters, causing the missile to veer off course and miss the target by a radius that was twenty times larger than testing tolerances.

“They made a big deal about, ‘The ADTs worked as designed.’ And in fact, when you look at it, no, they didn’t,” said a government official familiar with the matter, but who requested anonymity. “Because the one thruster didn’t fire…. If this was actually an intercept, it probably would have missed.”

According to the report, the thruster failed to fire because a loose piece of debris must have fallen onto the circuit board and created a short.

“If there’s a foreign object in one unit, it’s sort of whistling past the graveyard to assume that that’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said L. David Montague, a retired president of missile systems for Lockheed Corp.

A similar failure in January of 2010 was blamed on a missing fastener in the thruster assembly.  A subsequent failure in December of that year was blamed on severe vibrations caused by the thruster’s “rough combustion” of fuel.

In 2011, Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly shut down production of the missiles in order to gain a better understanding of what was causing the failures and how to address those issues, but production was restarted shortly after O’Reilly’s retirement in 2012 – when the Obama Administration ordered an expansion of the GMD fleet.  Eventually, changes were made to the production methods that are supposed to correct the issues the program had previously experienced, but no plans have been announced to refit or repair the existing platforms – which currently compromise 90% of the missiles we rely on to keep a rogue nuclear weapon from impacting on American soil.

Current production will see a reduced reliance on these seemingly faulty platforms, but the old missiles will still comprise a healthy two-thirds of all GMD missiles in use once production halts again.  It has been postulated that something as simple as spraying the circuit boards with a layer of plastic in a process called “conformal coating” could resolve the issues in the existing missiles, but bureaucracy and self-serving contractors have left the government with no plan to do so.

“What is the point of using tests to identify problems if you don’t fix those problems afterwards?” Said Laura Grego, a physicist who led an in-depth study of GMD published last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  She is now questioning the government’s plan to continue production without addressing existing issues with the platform. “At some point you have to decide if you mean to build something that works or something that simply looks like it works.”

To date, the GMD program has cost taxpayers an estimated $40 billion, with billions more slated to go toward production and deployment of more missiles, including a possible third GMD site in the Eastern half of the United States.  While it’s clear that these missiles are integral to our national defense, they aren’t much use to use if they don’t work.  Current testing indicates that the U.S. would have to launch four to five GMD missiles at any one nuclear warhead in order to ensure the best chances we successfully intercept it, which could dramatically reduce our ability to engage multiple warheads if ever the need arose.

With such a significant chink in America’s nuclear armor, and North Korea’s continued efforts to develop a nuclear missile that can place the United States in their sights… maybe it’s time we started seriously looking at our nuclear defenses, rather than simply putting another less-than-effective “duck and cover” strategy into place.


Image courtesy of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner