Global security, politics collide in big defense test

By Bruce Finley
Denver Post International Affairs Writer

July 7, 2000 - CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN OPERATIONS CENTER - You won't see the rockets' red glare tonight in the U.S. military's landmark test of missile defense technology.

But expect plenty of political heat.

Other countries rail against U.S. plans to deploy a shield against enemy missiles, warning this could start a new arms race. And with presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore both supporting missile defense in concept, critics contend short-term election jockeying is intruding on global security.

The success or failure of the test tonight - an attempt to obliterate a mock warhead high over the Pacific Ocean by aiming a 122-pound interceptor very carefully - is billed as the best indication yet whether the proposed $60 billion shield against enemy missiles is feasible. President Clinton is to decide this year whether to move ahead on first-phase deployment.

The system would be run from a "battle management center" here, a mile inside Cheyenne Mountain west of Colorado Springs where early warning operations were set up during the Cold War. The proposed defense system is designed to protect Americans from what U.S. officials describe as serious potential threats from North Korea, Iran, Iraq and other nations.

"More and more nations in the future are going to invest in ballistic missiles," said Vice Adm. Herbert Browne, deputy chief of the U.S. Space Command, headquartered near Colorado Springs. "Some of those will be able to reach North America. We're convinced that we need to defend our country from this growing threat. Yes, we believe the threat is real."

Today, military crews are poised for action in Colorado Springs, at Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Los Angeles and on Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Sometime after 8 p.m. MDT, they'll launch a rocket from Vandenberg carrying the mock warhead and a deflated Mylar balloon to serve as a decoy.

Satellites and ground-based radar stations are to detect the warhead and decoy balloon in flight, then send the data to early warning system operators in Colorado Springs.

Those computer operators then are to relay the location and trajectory of the mock warhead to Kwajalein, 6,000 miles away. That data will be programmed into the 55-inch interceptor, what military officials call an exoatmospheric kill vehicle, atop another rocket. Crews on Kwajalein will launch it. As it thunders up, high-powered Xband radar on Kwajalein is to track the warhead and send even more detailed data to the interceptor in flight.

About 20 minutes into the exercise, if all goes as planned, the nonexplosive interceptor, moving at about 15,000 mph, will distinguish between the 6-foot-diameter decoy balloon and the mock warhead. Pentagon planners are hoping to see a big flash as the force of impact destroys the mock warhead.

"Everybody will be happy if we hit the target," said Lt. Gen. John Costello, commander of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense, also based in Colorado Springs.

This is the third of 19 planned tests. Pentagon planners claim one hit and one miss. Critics have questioned whether the hit was for real.

"That's baloney," Costello said. In January, an interceptor missed a mock warhead, Pentagon officials said, because a cooling system clogged and shut down heat-seeking sensors.

The first-phase missile defense deployment, should Clinton approve it, would begin with construction of X-band radar on Shemya Island above the Arctic circle off Alaska. Construction would begin next spring to have a limited defense system operational by 2005 when, according to a 1999 U.S. intelligence estimate, North Korea could have the capability of attacking the United States.

Other countries adamantly oppose U.S. plans. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of arms control, limits the development of missile defense systems. U.S. officials are negotiating to change the treaty. For nearly a year, U.S. diplomats have been broaching the idea of missile defense with Chinese, European and Russian leaders.

No one's on board.

Russia views the perceived threat from North Korea skeptically, said Mikhail Shurgalin, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington.

"We fear this could, at a certain point, start up a new arms race, a new cold war," Shurgalin said. "We think those threats in general are probably exaggerated. We understand that other countries are concerned, too, like China and European countries. The world is a fragile thing. Before you make a move, it is better to find out what other people think. It is better to work out a compromise."

As for China, negotiations are said to be equally difficult. A senior Clinton administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said China plans to modernize its nuclear arsenal whether or not the United States moves ahead with missile defense. The question, critics say, is how many missiles China will build, and whether that motivates India and perhaps Pakistan to build more missiles.

France has led European opposition. French officials took no position on today's test. But more consultation is needed before anything is deployed, said Francois Delattre, spokesman at the French Embassy in Washington.

"We think there are many questions," Delattre said, such as "the nature of the threat, the evolution of the threat, and a possible arms race." Nobel laureate scientists this week urged Clinton to reject the proposed missile defense. And today, critics plan demonstrations, including one outside Peterson Air Force Base east of Colorado Springs, headquarters for U.S. Space Command. Critics contend missile defense won't work, costs too much and causes more international conflict than it promises to resolve.

Yet Democratic political concerns - not leaving Gore vulnerable to Bush on whether Americans are adequately protected - are likely to force Clinton to approve a deployment he otherwise might reject, said John Pike, weapons analyst for the Federation of American Scientists.

"For the political tacticians who are not worried about Chinese nuclear missiles, who are only worried about getting their candidate elected, this decision is very simple," Pike said. "I think these people are playing politics with national security. I am an American, and I am unhappy about it."

Gore and Bush were awaiting word on the outcome of tonight's test, their campaign spokesmen said. White House officials rejected the charge that Clinton's decision will be influenced by presidential politics.

Clinton hasn't decided yet and will base his decision on objective criteria, national Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "We're in a situation where whatever decision the president makes is not going to please some groups," Crowley said. "So he's just going to do what's right for the country."

Copyright 2000 The Denver Post. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.