WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has spent nearly $43 billion over the past five years on missile defense systems, but with North Korea brandishing its most advanced missile yet, U.S. government assessments and investigative reports indicate little confidence in the centerpiece portion of the program.
Eleven ground-based interceptors in Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California, the cornerstone of the administration's new system, have not undergone a successful test in nearly four years and have been troubled by glitches that investigators blame, at least in part, on President Bush's order in 2002 to make the program operational before it had been fully tested.
In all, the interceptors hit dummy missiles in five out of 10 tests, but these were under controlled conditions that critics said did not reflect the challenges of an actual missile launch.
A little-noticed study by the Government Accountability Office issued in March found that program officials were so concerned with potential flaws in the first nine interceptors now in operation that they considered taking them out of their silos and returning them to their manufacturer for "disassembly and remanufacture."
"Quality control procedures may not have been rigorous enough to ensure that unreliable parts, or parts that were inappropriate for space applications, would be removed from the manufacturing process," the report found.
Since taking office in 2001, Bush has made a ballistic missile defense system one of his highest military priorities, advancing an array of programs designed to down enemy missiles in various stages of flight.
North Korea's Taepodong-2 missile is thought to be capable of reaching U.S. bases in Japan, the U.S. territory of Guam and possibly Alaska or Hawaii. The problems in the ground-based defense system, as well as the expense of the war in Iraq, have not dampened the administration's enthusiasm for the program.
The Pentagon has requested $10.4 billion for missile defense in next year's budget, which would be its largest annual grant to date. And according to the GAO, the administration plans to spend $58 billion, or 14 percent of its entire research budget, on missile defense over the next six years.
The bulk of spending has gone to the ground-based interceptor system, designed to take out long-range missiles as they arc through space toward a target. Interceptors are rockets that have missile-seeking devices meant to destroy incoming weapons.
In addition to the 11 interceptors, nine at Fort Greely in Alaska and two in California, the system includes a series of complex radar upgrades and a sophisticated command system that allows all its components to interact.
The ground-based system has received most of the attention and funding. Missile defense systems based on Navy ships equipped with sophisticated Aegis radar, which have proven more successful in tests, have been winning a growing percentage of the spending, at least in part because of the ground-based failures.
The most high-profile U.S. military involvement in any North Korean launch likely comes from Aegis-equipped destroyers, which regularly patrol the coastal waters off the Korean Peninsula. But the purpose of the radar is to track enemy missiles rather than to shoot them down.
The Navy first sent a destroyer with Aegis radar upgraded for tracking ballistic missile launches into international waters near North Korea in October 2004, when the U.S. guided missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur was deployed as part of the Navy's first operational missile defense mission.
None of the Navy's destroyers is equipped with rockets that can shoot down enemy missiles, said Dave Kier, who overseas the Aegis missile defense system for its prime contractor, Lockheed Martin. Instead, they are used to feed back real-time data on missile launches to the U.S. Strategic Command, the Pentagon division responsible for all missile defense systems.
Only three larger Navy cruisers - the Shiloh, Lake Erie and Port Royal - are equipped with anti-missile rockets. But these rockets are being developed more to combat shorter-range rockets rather than intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the Taepodong-2.
For its part, the Shiloh has already knocked down a missile launched from Hawaii on June 23. Unlike the test results for the ground-based system, cruisers have hit their targets in six of seven tests before the Shiloh's most recent attempt.
Because of the repeated misses by the ground-based system - including back-to-back attempts just over a year ago in which the interceptors failed to launch at all - Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering, director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, suspended all ground-based tests early last year.
He ordered two teams - one internal and one run by three outside experts - to investigate the glitches. In December, an interceptor missile was launched without problems - but it was not aimed at a dummy missile.
This spring, Obering signed off on a new test schedule for the ground-based system. The first test was planned for later this summer, and a spokesman said Obering's approval of the plan was a sign that he now believes the interceptors are back on track.
During testimony on Capitol Hill in May, Obering said that although the system was not yet on alert, "If we had to use the system in an emergency, I fully believe that it would work."
But the GAO study and a similar study issued in February by the Pentagon's internal Operational Test and Evaluation Office, a department created to take independent looks at the military's biggest weapons programs, paint a far less optimistic picture.
The annual Operational Test and Evaluation report, issued in February, said "there is insufficient evidence to support a confident assessment" of the latest components installed in the system. The report did, however, praise Obering for overhauling the program. The assessment by the GAO is still more skeptical, saying that even though individual technologies involved in knocking a long-range missile out of the sky have been tested, the agency has yet to prove that the full system works.
Much of the trouble, both the GAO and Operational Test and Evaluation Office studies argue, can be tied to the decision to push the system into operation as it was being developed. In December 2002, Bush ordered the Missile Defense Agency to develop a limited capability in Alaska by 2004, a process that authorized the Pentagon to field components before they were fully tested.
Both the Missile Defense Agency and the GAO have laid some of the blame on Boeing, the ground-based program's lead contractor. Obering docked Boeing $107 million for the failures, though both the company and the Defense agency say relations have improved since the fines were imposed in February. A Boeing statement insisted the company has revamped and improved its oversight, but the GAO is still projecting significant cost overruns.
The most troubling failure appears to be potential glitches in the interceptors themselves. The GAO said officials involved in the ground-based system recommended that the Missile Defense Agency remove the first nine interceptors entirely, on concerns that the missiles might contain parts that are not "adequately reliable" or "appropriate for use in space."
The agency has agreed to take them out of their silos to check the parts, but not until the missiles go through scheduled upgrades next year. That would mean that the first test since the hiatus, which will be the first using an interceptor at Vandenberg, will involve a suspect interceptor missile.
"It's not a perfect system; it never will be," said one person familiar with the issues involved, speaking on condition of anonymity while discussing internal deliberations. Officials are debating whether the system now is good enough to provide "a high probability" of success, he said.
"They're some who think that it is, and some think it isn't."
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.