Arms Control Wonk.com has obtained the full text of the Final Report of the Missile Defense Agency’s Independent Review Team (IRT), first reported by Bradley Graham in the Washington Post.

Graham, however, missed the scoop—the IRT perversely recommends reducing future flight tests because … this is so priceless … more failures might undermine the system’s meager deterrent value:

Successful test intercepts will send a strong message to adversaries of the U.S., who may be dissuaded by the effectiveness of the system from investing further in ballistic missile forces and/or be deterred from attacking the U.S., our deployed forces, our allies, and friends. Therefore, successful flight testing is a strategic issue as well as a key to continued successful system development.

The IRT recommends five changes, the cumulative effect of which will be to make testing less likely:

1. Establish a More Rigorous Flight Readiness Certification Process
2. Strengthen Systems Engineering
3. Perform additional ground-based qualification testing as a requirement for flight testing
4. Hold contractor functional organizations accountable for supporting prime contract management
5. Assure that the GMD program is executable

The general effect of these recommendations is to create a presumption against conducting any scheduled flight test—what the IRT calls “Prove why should fly”. For good measure, the IRT recommends making the next integrated flight test a “non-intercept” test.

Imagine that: First, MDA rushes a defense that won’t defend to meet a deadline that just happens to coincide with a Presidential election. Then, MDA scales way back on necessary testing, lest the bad guys figure out the damn thing doesn’t work.

Brace yourself, it gets worse. Kim Jong-Il probably knows the system is dog; the dunce who concerns me is George W. Bush.

Bush told a Pennsylvania audience that potential adversaries know “You fire, we’re going to shoot it down”—a disturbing remark that suggests Administration officials may have an exaggerated notion of effectiveness of the system.

Undersecretary E.C. Aldridge similarly told Congress that he believed the system would “would perform with 90 percent effectiveness against a missile launched by North Korea.” Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) nearly choked before suggesting Aldridge have another look at the classified number. Apparently, however, MDA is sticking to the Aldridge line—several officials told the Post that the classifed estimate was “greater than 80 percent.”

In Technical Realities: An Analysis of the 2004 Deployment of a U.S. National Missile Defense System, Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, George Lewis and Phil Coyle explain that Aldridge and some MDA officials are making personal judgements because there is no testing data that indicates otherwise:

… there is essentially no information from the flight-test program on which to base an estimate of the system’s defensive capability. This is clearly understood by the same Pentagon officials who have made highly optimistic claims about the system effectiveness, as indicated by a discussion between Senator Levin and then Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Aldridge at a March 2003 hearing. After Aldridge stated that the initial Block 2004 system would be 90 percent effective against a North Korean missile, Levin countered that the classified numbers did not support his claim. Aldridge then expressed surprise that there even was a classified number “because we don’t know yet, until we get into the testing process …

Gronlund et al conclude that “claims about the performance of a weapon system must be based on the results of a rigorous test program, not the personal beliefs of any individual in the absence of such data.”

What’s so bad about false confidence?

“Leading military and political leaders to believe they have options that are not in fact realistic,” Gronlund et al argue, “can be dangerous and, at the least, contribute to bad decision making”:

If a country were preparing to launch missiles at the United States, beliefs about the effectiveness of the U.S. missile defense system could also affect a decision about whether to use precision-guided weapons to try to destroy the missiles on the ground in advance of their potential launch.

Similarly, if administration officials believed that the GMD system could reliably intercept ballistic missiles launched by North Korea, they might be less motivated to pursue diplomatic means to address the North Korean missile program.

It is not difficult to find examples in which the perceptions of high-level policy makers differed starkly from the technical assessment of experts who were more familiar with the details of a situation. A striking example is the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. It is clear in retrospect that the technical experts who understood the space shuttle in detail knew that the
unusually cold temperatures on the night of the launch represented a significant risk if the launch proceeded. But this was not understood by the high-level officials who made the decision to launch, and the result was disastrous.

Seriously, either test the damn thing or spend the money on Special Forces.