Missile Defense

By Thomas Duffy / May 18, 2010 at 5:00 AM

Pentagon missile defense officials and M.I.T. physicist Ted Postol are facing off once again following a front-page story in this morning's New York Times. Postol and George Lewis, a Cornell physicist, have penned a critical look at the testing record of the Standard Missile-3 interceptor that will be published later this month in Arms Control Today. The SM-3 is supposed to provide the knockout punch for the Obama administration's new phased adaptive approach for missile defense. The plan rests on having dozens of Navy Aegis ships equipped with interceptors that can take down enemy missiles in flight using kinetic energy.

But Postol and Lewis are very skeptical, according to the Times, basing their wariness on a review of the publicly available testing record of the SM-3. Looking at 10 tests the Pentagon announced as successful, Postol and Lewis say they have determined that only one or two of the tests succeeded, according to the Times report.

Postol has been down this road before. He famously took aim at the Patriot antimissile system's batting average during the 1992 Gulf War.

Just hours after the Times story hit the newsstand, the top spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency fired back. Writing on the Defense Department's DOD Live blog, Richard Lehner said:

Postol and Lewis apparently based their assessment on publicly released photos gleaned from a sensor mounted aboard the SM-3 and postulated what they perceived to be the interceptor’s impact point although they had no access to classified telemetry data showing the complete destruction of the target missiles, or subsequent sensor views of the intercept that were not publicly released so as not to reveal to potential adversaries exactly where the target missile was struck.

Later in the blog, Lehner notes:

All of the tests cited by the authors as “misses” were tests involving short-range unitary targets, when the warhead remains attached to the booster rocket. These tests were correctly described by the Missile Defense Agency as successful intercepts, because they successfully intercepted the target. Post-test analysis from collected telemetry showed that the interceptor’s kill vehicle impacted the target body or warhead within inches of the expected impact point that was calculated to maximize damage against a variety of warhead types.

Lehner will be taking questions regarding the Postol/Lewis SM-3 analysis at 4:00 o'clock this afternoon on DOD Live.