Pyongyang's attempt to test fire an ambitious Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile failed and the ambitious giant rocket exploded not long after take-off. But at least it got off the ground. The much-vaunted Ground-based Midcourse Interceptors, or GBIs, around Fort Greely never even got that far.
For this week, the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO -- a non-government U.S. watchdog body founded in 1981 -- reported that several of the key interceptors could never even have been launched, not because of North Korea sabotage, or sabotage by anyone else, but because of rain.
The POGO report is quite extraordinary and will be quoted from at considerable length to assure our readers we are not hyping it, or exaggerating its conclusions in any way.
"A significant portion of the U.S. missile defense capability was wiped out during the summer of 2006 because torrential rains caused ground-based interceptor silos to be damaged by flood waters," POGO said in a statement.
"Boeing, the contractor that is at least partly responsible for failing to protect the silos, will most likely still receive an estimated $38 million to repair the silos and a $100 million no-bid contract to build more silos. Boeing would also receive a $7 million award fee added to the contract," the group said.
POGO noted that "the flooding occurred during a three-week period between the end of June and early July 2006 when Ft. Greely received several inches of rain. Ft. Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California house the nation's only Missile Defense Agency interceptor missiles."
"The flooding damaged 25 percent of the U.S. interceptor missiles' launch capability. These silos house the interceptor missiles that would be used to attempt to intercept a missile aimed at the United States. No interceptors were in the flooded silos," the group's report said.
POGO also reported that the flooding debacle had set off a fierce row between the U.S. military and Boeing, the prime contractor for building the Fort Greely interceptor fields.
"Insiders report that Boeing, the lead contractor responsible for building the fields disputes its role in the disaster," the POGO report said. "Boeing argues that NORTHCOM, the U.S. military command responsible for defending North America, is primarily responsible because it ordered Boeing to stop working on the interceptor fields in case the missiles were needed to respond to a North Korean missile launch. "
POGO said "Boeing's internal assessment shows that one of the missile fields has seven flooded interceptor silos -- with up to 63 feet of water in one silo and 50 feet in another.
The group noted that so far Fort Greely houses 26 launch silos and that "as of Feb. 7, 2007, 13 interceptors had been installed."
POGO noted another aspect of the dispute between Boeing and NORTHCOM. The giant contractor claims it was going ahead with plans to protect the silos from falling rain," sources told the group.
"However, these same sources say it is questions whether the silos could have handled the rainfall anyway because they are poorly designed. In addition, an environmental impact study of the facilities at Fort Greely notes there is "little rainfall in the region," the watchdog body said
POGO noted that the annual bill for the GBI program currently runs at around $9 billion a year.
Seven Silo Interface Vaults, or SIVs, beside the silos housing the GBIs were also flooded, "two of them by as much as 15 feet of water," the POGO report said. It noted that the SIVs are essential to the successful maintenance and operational capabilities of the ABMs.
. "Boeing's internal assessment reports that three SIVs must have all electronic and mechanical systems replaced. Four other SIVs have partial damage. One SIV was so damaged that it shifted vertically in the ground like a house shifting off its foundation," POGO said.
The POGO report throws remarkable new light on the recent surprise request by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, or MBA, for funding "to build an entirely new missile field of 20 missiles, along with associated support facilities," as the POGO report puts it.
We had previously reported, without comment, this request in our companion BMD Watch column. The POGO report suggests that the real reason for the new missile field was "to avoid the problem of working near missiles in undamaged silos. Also it is not cost effective to refurbish the damaged silos and SIVs."
Readers of these columns will recall this is not the first time we have monitored reports of the failure of crucial, state-of-the-art anti-ballistic missile interceptor systems because the concrete silos housing them could not keep out something as common, old-fashioned and low-tech as plain water.
In February 2005, an ABM interceptor failed to ignite and launch from a silo on the Pacific island of Kwajalein in an MDA test to intercept an ICBM in flight. One of the three lateral seismic support arms holding for the interceptor in the silo did not completely retract because some salt water had got into the bottom of the silo after it had been modified to accept the operational booster configuration and corroded a hinge mechanism on the support arm.