U.S. Deploys Missile Defense System

Installation goes forward despite latest test failure

6 min read

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."

The 14 December Test , which was to be the first full-system trial of the interceptor with its operational launcher, failed when the launcher rocket did not take off on command. Eight previous tests of the system, involving a much slower booster rocket, were inconclusive: five succeeded in hitting their targets, but three failed. In those tests, however, which took place more than two years ago, the launch times and trajectories of the incoming missiles were known well in advance. Such information, of course, would not be available during an actual attack.

On the face of it, the latest setback, together with the checkered testing history, "makes it politically difficult for the Bush administration to declare the system [truly] operational any time soon," observes Wade Boese, the research director for the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit research group opposed to missile defense. "This was the first flight-test of the interceptor model being employed in Alaska, and they can't even get it off the ground."

Philip Coyle, who was the Pentagon's chief of testing during the Clinton administration, told the Associated Press that the "latest failure to intercept a target shows again that the system being deployed in Alaska has no demonstrated capability to work" against a real attack. In a recent speech at a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Coyle sharply criticized the Pentagon for trying to put into operation a missile defense system that has not been thoroughly tested.

"This is like deploying a new military jet fighter with no wings, no tail, and no landing gear," he said. Without testing, "there is no basis for knowing the system being deployed will have the capability to defend against a real attack....All of the flight-intercept tests so far have been more tightly scripted than a modern political convention."

The position taken by the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is that, despite test failures, the country is on its way to having an operational system. Chris Taylor, a spokesperson for the MDA, told IEEE Spectrum, "The system we're attempting to build would go after threats in all ranges and phases of flight. It is designed with a range of nations in mind, of which, certainly, [North] Korea is one."

In a recent briefing for reporters, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, the director of the missile agency, said he simply rejected the criticism that "we're not operationally testing the system before we put it in place. My response to that—which people don't seem to want to accept—is: you can't operationally test the system until you put it in place."

President Bush, for his part, dismisses his opponents as technological Luddites who don't understand the post-9/11 world. "The critics are living in the past," he said last August during a campaign stop at a Boeing Co. aircraft plant in Ridley Park, Pa. By contrast, he said, "We're living in the future. We're going to do what's necessary to protect this country. We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world: 'You fire; we're going to shoot it down.' "

"You can't operationally test the system until you put it in place"
—U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish

THAT SIMPLE FORMULA is the basis for the system now being deployed in a series of what the MDA calls "blocks" [see sidebar, "Crash ABM Deployment"]. The so-called test bed that had been scheduled for activation at the end of last year is known as Block 2004. Its components will include a huge floating X-band radar base and a network of missile interceptors deployed on land at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and at sea on Aegis cruisers operated by the U.S. Navy.

In the next stage, Block 2006, the MDA will deploy chemical-based airborne lasers onboard specially equipped 747 jets. The lasers are being designed to pierce incoming missiles in the early boost phase of their ascent.

By mid-December, the first of five Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors for Block 2004 had been delivered to the Navy, and all six interceptors were in place in Alaska. The first of two interceptors were emplaced at Vandenberg on 10 December. The radar base is being constructed in Texas and will be towed to waters off Alaska sometime this year. In the meantime, the MDA is relying on early warning radar systems in place on Shemya Island in Alaska's Aleutian chain and Beale Air Force Base in California.

Boeing is the lead systems integrator for the Block 2004 ground-based interceptor system. Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va., built the booster rocket, and Raytheon Co., Waltham, Mass., built the kill vehicle. The other major contractors for the initial phase of the system are Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

The current missile defense program dates back to 1999, when Congress, with the tepid support of the Clinton administration, passed the National Missile Defense Act. It stated: "It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, deliberate)...."

In a significant move in June 2002, President Bush withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had banned both Washington and Moscow from deploying nationwide systems against long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. In four years, Bush has requested $32 billion from Congress for missile defense, far more than his predecessor spent during his eight years in office.


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