Fox News' Jim Angle understated -- and ABC's Charles Gibson omitted -- the poor flight test record of the ground-based missile defense system that the Bush administration reportedly activated in response to North Korea possibly testing a long-range missile.
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On June 20, Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle understated -- and ABC's World News Tonight anchor Charles Gibson omitted -- the poor flight test record of the ground-based missile defense system (GMDS) that the Bush administration reportedly activated in response to North Korea possibly testing a long-range missile. On Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Angle reported that the missile defense system "is described as having a modest capability at this point," and added that "[t]ests of the system have produced both successes and failures." Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, as well as news accounts, however, have stated that the GMDS has not successfully completed a flight test in the past three to four years, due to quality control issues in production. They have also noted that those tests' highly unrealistic and artificial conditions say little about the missile defense system's real-world performance. Moreover, the GMDS' ability to function as an integrated system has not yet been tested.
On ABC's World News Tonight, Gibson said the missile system had been activated, "just in case the [North Korean] missile might head this way," but omitted any discussion of its efficacy. Gibson's report echoed ABC News' senior national security correspondent Jonathan Karl's June 19 report on World News Tonight, which noted only that the U.S. missile defense system was "designed specifically to deal with the North Korean threat."
Major newspaper reports have noted the defense system's lack of proven ability to actually intercept an incoming hostile missile. For example, in a June 21 article, the Los Angeles Times called U.S. missile defense systems' overall record "spotty" and reported that "[s]ince 1999, the Pentagon has conducted 10 tests to knock down decoy missiles, half of which have failed. There has not been a successful test in more than three years." The article also reported that "independent experts expressed doubt" that activating the missile defense system "would be a significant defensive step," and quoted David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, stating that "[t]he missile defense system has not demonstrated capability to intercept a missile." Likewise, The New York Times, in a June 21 article, reported that "[t]he Pentagon has deployed 11 missile interceptors in a test status in Alaska and California and has not conducted a successful interception test in four years," while The Washington Post stated on the same day, "The system has not successfully intercepted a missile in its current configuration."
The two most recent flight tests -- in December 2004 and February 2005 -- both failed when the interceptors did not launch. A June 16 Reuters report stated that, since those failures, the United States has suspended tests in which the missile defense system launches an interceptor that attempts to hit an incoming warhead. A March 2006 GAO report found that the "performance" of the interceptors that have been deployed "is uncertain because inadequate mission assurance/quality control procedures may have allowed less reliable or inappropriate parts to be incorporated into the manufacturing process." The report also stated that the GMD system had "not successfully completed an end-to-end flight test." The Missile Defense Agency's (MDA) news website does not indicate that such a test has been attempted since the GAO report was released.
In contrast with the ABC News report, on the June 20 edition of NBC's Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams called the U.S. missile defense system "untested," while correspondent David Martin noted on the same day's edition of the CBS Evening News that "[e]ven under test conditions, [the missile interceptors'] record of hitting the target is only 50/50." Indeed, those "test conditions" included "artificialities," such as mounting a transponder on the target warhead (effectively telling the interceptor its current location) to simulate a radar system, which has the accuracy needed for a successful intercept, according to a February 2004 GAO report. The March 2006 GAO report stated that despite having "conducted five successful intercept attempts ... the [ground-based midcourse defense] program has been unable to verify that the integrated system, using production-representative components, will work in an end-to-end operation." "Until further testing is done," the GAO report continued, the MDA "will not know for sure that the integrated system using operational interceptors and fire control radars will perform as expected, or that technical problems with the kill vehicle and its booster have been fixed." The first flight test that might verify this capability, according to the report, is scheduled for November 2006.
From the June 20 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
HUME: Welcome to Washington. I'm Brit Hume. There is word tonight the U.S. military has activated the U.S.' ground-based missile defense system, moving that still incomplete program from test mode to operational mode. The purpose is a response to the missile, possible missile launch by North Korea. As chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle reports, it isn't so much that the Bush administration expects an attack, as it is a signal that America is ready to defend itself.
ANGLE: North Korea today vowed it has the right to test a long-range missile whether the world likes it or not, prompting the U.S. to activate its missile defense system on the chance the North Korean launch is more than a test. The U.S. started deploying the system only 18 months ago and it is described as having a modest capability at this point. Tests of the system have produced both successes and failures.
ANGLE: No one knows how far the North Korean missile might go and it is thought unlikely that it would be aimed at the United States, but North Korean technology is something short of precise and reliable, so no one is taking any chances. That's why the missile defense system is being activated even though one official says it is still experimental, but it was designed with the North Koreans in mind.
So, now that they are loudly proclaiming their right to do a test launch, the U.S. would be foolish not to activate it just in case. Brit.
From the June 20 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:
GIBSON: To North Korea next. There is a sign, tonight, of just how seriously the United States is taking reports that North Korea is preparing to test a long-range ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. Two senior military officials have told ABC News, the Pentagon has activated its missile defense system and put it on high alert. That -- just in case the missile might head this way.
From the June 19 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:
KARL: Senior U.S. military officials tell ABC News that if North Korea goes ahead with a missile launch, they don't rule out an attempt to shoot the missile down. The U.S. has a limited missile defense system, with interceptors in Alaska and California, designed specifically to deal with the North Korean threat. This would be North Korea's first missile launch since it shocked the world eight years ago with the test of a medium-range Taepo Dong I missile. But now, officials fear North Korea will launch the long-range Taepo Dong II. A missile believed to be powerful enough to hit the West Coast of the United States and, by some estimates, most of the country.
From the June 20 broadcast of the CBS Evening News:
SCHIEFFER: And now to the latest dispute with North Korea. Belligerent as always, the North Koreans declared today they have every right to test long-range missiles, weapons that could reach America's West Coast. And they have one on the launching pad and appear to be fueling it. No one really believes they intend to fire it at the United States, but U.S. officials are taking no chances. They have turned on the new missile defense system and will track the North Korean missile wherever it goes, if it does go. The question is: Will this missile defense work? Here is David Martin now with that.
MARTIN: In the eight years since North Korea last tested a long-range missile, the United States has built and deployed a limited missile defense system, which is getting its first real world test.
The missile now on the North Korean launch pad is exactly the missile the American system, a network of radars and interceptor rockets, was designed to defend against. It is still experimental, but it has been activated and could fire in the unlikely event it is needed.
The first sign of a North Korean launch would come from an infrared satellite, which would detect the heat of the missile's rocket plume as it lifted off the pad. As the missile gained altitude, it would be picked up by the radar of an Aegis cruiser and then by a giant radar based in Alaska. Within three or four minutes, the radars would have collected enough data to compute the trajectory of the missile and answer the all-important question: Where is it going to land?
When the North Koreans fired a long-range missile in 1998, they were attempting, unsuccessfully, to put a satellite in orbit. It's not clear what the purpose of another shot would be, but the missile is believed to have a long enough range to hit the West Coast.
If the radars decided the missile was going to hit the U.S., a decision to shoot it down would have to be made in minutes. By then, the missile would be in mid-course, the only stage of its trajectory during which the U.S. currently has even a limited capability to shoot it down.
There are nine interceptor rockets in Alaska and two in California that could be used. Even under test conditions, their record of hitting the target is only 50/50. So, several of them would have to be launched to increase the odds.
MARTIN: That's not likely to happen, because no one thinks North Korea would be so reckless as to actually fire a missile at the U.S. But it is possible, and the military is duty-bound to defend against it, or at least try -- Bob.
From the June 20 broadcast of the NBC's Nightly News:
WILLIAMS: Now, to this ongoing dispute with North Korea about the possibility that it is preparing to at least test-launch a long-range missile that could reach the United States. Today, North Korea insisted it has every right to conduct missile tests. That led Japan and South Korea to say they would join the U.S. in trying to stop any such thing from happening. As you may recall, our own [chief Pentagon correspondent] Jim Miklaszewski reported here last night on this broadcast -- the U.S. has now activated its controversial and untested missile defense system that could shoot down any incoming North Korean launch.
From the June 19 broadcast of the NBC's Nightly News:
MIKLASZEWSKI: And just how serious does the U.S. military take a North Korean missile test? America's limited missile defense system, 12 interceptor missiles in Alaska and California, are on alert, in case the test itself poses a possible threat to the U.S.
The likely response, however, would be strictly diplomatic. The U.S. already talking to other nations at the UN [United Nations] about how to respond, which could include economic sanctions if North Korea decides to go through with the test.