Testing of U.S. Missile Defense System
Raises Many Questions

March 22, 2000; Wednesday BYLINE: Jim Moret, David Ensor

U.S. efforts to build a missile defense network capable of fending off a limited nuclear attack has become a very sensitive issue. The challenge is complicated, requiring a combination of high technology and limited budget, with delicate political and arms control issues both here and abroad. Test results so far have been mixed. A decision on the program's future may not come until the final days of this year's election campaign.



JIM MORET, CNN ANCHOR: In "Focus" tonight: U.S. efforts to build a missile defense network capable of fending off a limited nuclear attack. The challenge is complicated, requiring a combination of high technology and limited budget, with delicate political and arms control issues both here and abroad. Test results so far have been mixed. A decision on the program's future may not come until the final days of this year's election campaign.

CNN's national security correspondent David Ensor has a preview of the next missile test, now delayed until June, and an exclusive look at the team of scientists working to make the system a reality.


DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Last October, scientists on a remote Pacific island made final preparations for the first real test of a missile designed to knock out an enemy missile before it could reach the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALES: Five, four, three, two, one, mark. Missile away, missile away.

ENSOR: The missile soared into space in search of its target, a dummy nuclear warhead launched from California about 20 minutes earlier. In the control rooms, nerves were on edge. A lot of hopes, a lot of careers were on the line in this $100 million test. Success. In October, the kill vehicle having separated from its missile hit and destroyed its target high up in space.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With a closing velocity of about 15,000 miles per hour, the kill vehicle intercepts and destroys the simulated warhead with body-to-body impact.

ENSOR: The kill vehicle found its target using its own sensors and information from powerful radars positioned around the world. It then maneuvered using small rocket engines that were first tested in a laboratory on the ground.

But at a second test in January, there was a different story. This time the kill vehicle's infrared sensors lost their target at the last moment and it missed.

Now, a third test has been delayed two months by the Pentagon to June. President Clinton has said he will decide whether to put national missile defense deployment on the fast track after that third test. In June, the scientists know the stakes will be higher than ever.

CHUCK LADUE, RAYTHEON EKV. PROGRAM MGR.: In no uncertain terms I believe that we are going to be successful in this third test.

ENSOR: Forty-three-year-old Chuck LaDue is Raytheon's project manager in Tucson, leading the team that builds the kill vehicles.

(on camera): Are you satisfied that you have figured out what the problem was and that you have a fix for it for the next one?

LADUE: The answer to that question is yes, we have narrowed it down to the most likely causes, which is a small handful. We have implemented corrective action for all of those possible causes.

ENSOR: Industry officials say they now believe the reason the last vehicle missed its target was because one of the lines carrying cooling gas to a sensor that helps the vehicle guide its way through space got blocked. The temperature of those sensors is supposed to be maintained at minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the blockage, it wasn't quite that cold.

(voice-over): Inside this usually secretive Raytheon lab, shown for the first time here on CNN, engineers dressed like surgeons in a hospital to avoid dirt replaced the tiny pipes on the next kill vehicle, pipes that will carry coolant to the infrared sensors.

LADUE: As we continually build the systems up, we learn more and we incorporate changes and corrective actions.

ENSOR: Even if the third test succeeds, the idea of a national missile defense, of a system designed to protect the United States from a limited missile attack by a North Korea or an Iran is a controversial one. For starters, will it work?

JOHN PIKE, FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS: They can certainly make this thing work in tests most of the time. The challenge is to make it work in combat all of the time. Well, at the end of the day we are basically betting that unlike all of our other weapons systems, this thing is going to work perfectly in combat the first time because the risk of failure is that if one warhead gets through you have more dead Americans than were killed in every other war put together.

ENSOR: Air Force Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish leads the Pentagon's ballistic missile defense organization.

LT. GEN. RONALD KADISH, DIR., BALLISTIC MISSILE DEFENSE OFFICE: We can shoot many times at the different credible objects in the field. If we deployed it, we would be highly confident it would work; but it is certainly preferable to what we have today, which is nothing.

ENSOR: The toughest challenge for a national missile defense system is to figure out which object in space is the warhead. It would almost certainly be surrounded by chaff and decoys as simple as aluminized mylar balloons. Even the re-entry vehicle containing the warhead could be inside a balloon.

LISBETH GRONLUND, UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS: Why wouldn't a country simply put another balloon around the re-entry vehicle, OK, and then release not one extra balloon, but perhaps dozens of extra balloons? I mean, there are just very straightforward simple things that an attacker could do to make these balloon decoys indistinguishable from each other so that the one with a warhead, you don't know which one it is.

ENSOR: On that point, Pentagon officials say they believe the kill vehicle will know the difference. How? That's a secret.

KADISH: I wouldn't want to go into it because of the classified nature of some of this, because if we revealed all the things that we can do eventually with this system, we would unnecessarily alert our adversaries to how to defeat it.

ENSOR: There is also the issue of radars. Even General Kadish says the national missile defense won't work well against all potential adversaries unless the U.S. gets some help. Radars in Britain and in Danish Greenland would be needed.

KADISH: We would have an early problem should we not get help from those radars, especially against certain scenarios.

ENSOR: But Britain and Denmark could well insist any national missile defense be made international, covering them too.

Back at Raytheon in Tucson they are tweaking the kill vehicle, getting ready for the next launch.

LADUE: There's nothing like it, and the heart starts pumping when you get to the T-minus 10 count.

ENSOR (on camera): And particularly will this next one, right?

LADUE: Yes, it will. Yes. We are in the unique position of having the international community watch our flight tests.

ENSOR: Although here at Raytheon the scientists exude confidence, they admit that much now rides on this next missile test. If it succeeds, the pressure on President Clinton to approve construction of a new national missile defense system will be great. If it fails, the pressure will be off.

David Ensor, CNN, Tucson.


MORET: If President Clinton's final decision lags into the fall, it could become embroiled in presidential politics. Vice President Gore has echoed the president's wait-and-see attitude on the system. George W. Bush has said he supports deployment, even if it violates the 1972 ABM Treaty.

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