Key Missile Defense Radar Planned for Remote Island

By Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2000; Page A06

Breezy days on Shemya Island bring steady 40 mph winds, with howling gusts to 80 mph that can lay a man flat. It takes a 3,000-mile barge trip from Seattle to carry construction materials to the inhospitable chunk of rock in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. And the closest inhabited point, an Eskimo village, is 100 miles away.

Yet this is where the Pentagon proposes to build an essential component of the United States' National Missile Defense system, a so-called X-band radar that would be the most powerful tracking and detection radar in the world.

The difficulty of erecting a radar dome on Shemya is driving the tight decision-making schedule that requires President Clinton to give a go-ahead by this fall for the system to be ready within five years. Letting the decision slip into December, Pentagon officials say, could delay completion of the missile shield by a whole year beyond 2005--and by then, according to CIA estimates, North Korea may already have developed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Shemya's appeal to the military is its location: It is at the westernmost tip of the 50 states--further west even than Hawaii--and directly in the path of any missile that North Korea might fire at the American heartland. But its isolation also means that its radar will be extremely hard to build, to staff and to defend.

"It turns out that the first thing we need to do to build this [missile defense] system is not to build the [interceptor rocket] booster, it's not to build the communication systems, so much as it is to start the construction of the X-band radar in Shemya," Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told Congress.

The government needs to contract for barges this fall to make sure they will be available as soon as the Gulf of Alaska is navigable next spring, Kadish explained. If the barges do not get to Shemya by late May, little can be accomplished during a construction season that effectively ends in August.

"Wind is the key constraint," said a missile defense planner. To put up the basic structures, the military needs winds of less than 30 mph for stretches of at least four hours at a time--and that happens on Shemya only in June and July. The crane work to erect the radar dome requires winds of less than 10 mph, an even rarer condition that occurs only in July.

"Everything has to be ready, everything has to be in place, and then we have to hope for a period of low winds long enough to erect the radar dome," said the missile defense official.

The dome, in turn, must be ready by 2003 because it will take another two years to install all the equipment planned for the new facilities on a bluff overlooking the Bering Sea. In the meantime, ships will bury 2,232 miles of fiber optic cable three feet under the sea floor to link Shemya to the Alaskan mainland.

"If we do not start the construction in the spring of next year, as currently planned, I cannot guarantee that we will meet the 2005 date," Kadish concluded.

The government has budgeted $500 million for the installation at Shemya, a fraction of the cost of building and equipping a National Missile Defense system, which the Pentagon has estimated at $12.5 billion through 2005. But spending more money will not speed up the project on Shemya, which already requires construction crews to work in two 10-hour shifts during the summer months when the sun shines through most of the night in the Aleutians.

"I won't say that it is physically impossible" to build the radar site faster, said Keith Englander, deputy chief of the missile defense program. "But we are fully resourced, and this is what we think we can do without cranking up the risk" of a construction error or accident, he added.

Making a go-ahead decision this fall will leave the administration little time either to assess an upcoming flight test or to negotiate with Russian officials, congressional Republicans and European allies, who all oppose the system, though for different reasons. The Russians do not want any U.S. national shield against strategic weapons; the Republican leadership in Congress wants a much bigger system than the Clinton administration is proposing; and the allies have complained that the system might disrupt U.S.-European mutual defense commitments.

Still, the construction timetable is only the first challenge presented by Shemya. The island is so inhospitable that the Pentagon is now trying to decide whether the crews that staff it would have to be rotated every two weeks, or less. Sitting about 1,500 miles from the nearest military reinforcements, the radar also could prove a tempting target for a foe interested in blinding the nation's missile defense system as a prelude to a missile attack or merely as an act of brinkmanship.

"It is going to be very, very vulnerable," said a senior military official familiar with the island, which was the site of an Air Force base and an intelligence listening post during the Cold War.

Concurring, a former flag-rank officer with command experience in the Aleutians noted that a fragile above-ground radar dish could be disabled by a few determined commandos or even a small artillery piece mounted on a fishing boat. "Shemya is extremely isolated in military terms, but those waters are so busy with fishing traffic that it would be very easy to approach undetected," the retired officer said.

While insisting that it has adequate plans to defend Shemya--the job has been given to the Alaska National Guard--the Pentagon acknowledges some concerns. "There are vulnerabilities that we will have to address," said Lt. Gen. John Costello, head of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command.

Still, Shemya's geographic position is so ideal that the Pentagon is willing to put up with the problems of construction, staffing and defense.

As the designers of the missile shield envision it, early-warning satellites would pick up the brilliant plume of an enemy's booster rocket and determine its course. Based on that information, the X-band radar on Shemya, a narrow but powerful beam, would begin searching a specific sector of the sky.

Because it is so far west, the radar on Shemya would lock onto target warheads as they start to cross the Pacific, giving U.S. interceptor missiles, based in central Alaska, enough time to close in. As these "kill vehicles" approach the incoming warheads at a combined speed of 15,000 mph, the X-band would provide updates for in-flight course corrections. Then, in the final few seconds before impact, optical and heat sensors aboard the kill vehicles would take over.

Just as important, by expanding the "battle zone" across the Pacific, the radar on Shemya might allow for the launch of a second salvo of interceptors should the first miss.

Without the X-band radar, any intercept would have to be based on much less specific information on a warhead's course, increasing the odds that a weapon of mass destruction might make it through the shield to a U.S. city, missile defense officials said.

Other radars will be available to guide interceptors if Shemya is taken out, but none of them can duplicate the X-band, officials said.

The National Missile Defense program, a distant offspring of the Reagan administration's "Star Wars" program, gained urgency in August 1998 after North Korea tested a powerful medium-range rocket, the Taepo Dong-1, putting the world on notice that it had the potential to build an ICBM. Taken together with Iran's missile development efforts, the North Korean threat convinced many members of Congress that the United States needed a missile shield.

While the Reagan program promised to develop technology capable of defeating a barrage of hundreds of Soviet missiles, the current plan has more modest goals. It begins with the deployment in 2005 of 20 interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, near Fairbanks. But even after 100 interceptors are fielded in 2007, the system would be capable of taking on only about 20 to 30 incoming warheads built with primitive technology, senior officials said.

In what some defense experts see as a flaw in logic, the shield is designed to defend against the unpredictable leaders of "rogue" states, but the defense of Shemya Island is based on the assumption that future crises will develop gradually and predictably, as they did during the Cold War.

"Usually we are not surprised by these things, and as the threat-con [condition] increases, we'll increase security," said Costello, the Army's missile defense commander. Under normal conditions, a few National Guard personnel, a fence and electronic monitors would provide security. But if a crisis develops, he said, fighter aircraft, troops and ships could be brought in as needed.

Some military experts believe that would leave Shemya vulnerable to the very sort of attack that the missile shield is supposed to defeat. "The reason for building this thing is that we are worried about an irrational act by a rogue state leader willing to risk nuclear obliteration, and so why do we think we are going to get enough warning to reinforce Shemya when the nearest help is three hours' flying time away?" asked a senior military officer, who like other internal critics of the plan asked not to be named.

Missile Tracker

The Pentagon plans to build an X-band radar, a key component of a National Missile Defense system, on a remote island where it would be directly in the path of any missile North Korea might fire at the United States. The CIA says North Korea could develop ICBM capabilities through its Taepo Dong missile program within the next decade.

Taepo Dong-2

(North Korea)


About 100 feet

Hypothetical range:

Two-stage model could deliver a several-hundred-kilogram payload to Alaska and Hawaii and a lighter payload to the western half of the United States.

Three-stage model could deliver a several-hundred-kilogram payload anywhere in the United States.

SOURCE: Defense Department, Federation of American Scientists

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