The rockets may not glare and bombs may not burst in the air—to rephrase part of the U.S. national anthem—but the Bush administration is forging ahead with construction of what it terms an "operational" missile defense system. The official objective was to have a rudimentary system up and running by last December, but after a key interceptor test rocket failed to fire from the Marshall Islands on 14 December, the Pentagon's Northern Command said the system would not become operational until early this year [see photo, " Rollout"].
Two years ago, President George W. Bush ordered the activation by the end of 2004 of a system capable of defending the United States against a missile attack by a terrorist group or an unfriendly rogue state such as North Korea. Evidently, the administration's thinking now is that it's better to get on with the job—even if the system looks less than ready—than it is to be seen doing nothing.
And apparently other countries share that thinking. On 17 December, three days after the failed U.S. test, Japan formally agreed to beef up cooperation with the United States in missile defenses. Together with a decision the week before to partially lift a decades-old ban on arms exports (specifically exempting missile defense components from the ban), Tokyo's new policy represents a radical shift. Its "peace constitution," drawn up in the aftermath of World War II, supposedly bars Japan from participating in "collective defense" pacts.
Even more startling than the shift on missile defenses, perhaps, were Japan's new defense guidelines, also announced in December, which declare that it will develop a long-range missile that would have the capability of striking targets several hundred miles away. No monetary projection was attached to that plan, but over the next two years Japan will spend US $6.5 billion on missile defense research and development. The Bush administration's budget request earmarks $11 billion for missile defenses in fiscal 2005.
The first phase of the U.S. system has been under construction on bases in Alaska and California and on Navy ships at sea. The centerpiece of the system is a rocket-launched kinetic kill vehicle, intended to destroy incoming warheads by direct impact before they reenter the atmosphere. Since the 1960s, critics of missile defense concepts have often derided them as a hopeless effort to "hit a bullet with a bullet." But that is exactly what the system being set up will attempt to do.
The decision to rely on the exoatmospheric kill vehicle rather than an explosive device or a laser beam reflects both physical limitations and political realities. Decades ago, scientists determined that "even a small nuclear warhead used in the vacuum of space could have all kinds of collateral consequences," says Loren B. Thompson, the chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a defense-oriented think tank in Arlington, Va.
As a result, the Pentagon began to study the use of laser beams fired from space-based satellites. Such directed energy weapons initially were expected to be the linchpin of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program, which he promulgated to much acclaim—and much alarm—in 1983. But that technology "proved to be wildly impractical," as Thompson puts it, and Congress essentially killed off the laser-based program during the first Bush administration.
The current Bush administration "favors a relatively modest, thin defense using reasonably well understood technology to cope with a relatively modest danger," says Thompson, who is also a consultant to high-tech companies and the federal government. The choice of this architecture reflects changes in the nature of the threat—a shift in focus from a large-scale surprise attack by the former Soviet Union to very limited attacks by a country like North Korea—and the "determination of the president to actually deploy a functioning system."