After decades of flops, $100 billion in costs and sharp rises in the political stakes, the Pentagon is trying again to defend the United States against missile attack.
The "Star Wars" dream of zapping enemy warheads with orbiting lasers, which President Reagan championed, is long gone. Instead, the military leaders of the Clinton administration have seized on an older, less controversial approach that is nonetheless proving to be diabolically hard.
On Tuesday, if all goes as planned, a launcher on a 10-wheeled truck is to fire a 20-foot interceptor missile from a test site in the New Mexico desert. The goal is for the interceptor to speed above the earth, pinpoint a mock warhead, zero in with a "kill vehicle" on its radiated heat and smash it to bits by force of impact.
Since this approach was first proposed in 1976, it has been tested a total of 16 times. Fourteen times it failed, most recently in March. In two tests, in 1984 and 1991, the interceptors succeeded in hitting targets. But congressional sleuths later found that the tests had been quietly made less challenging and that some results had been exaggerated.
Critics say this record suggests the idea will never be practical. But this would-be weapon still stars in a push to shield the United States from enemy warheads. "It's not an impossible task," Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles of the Air Force, director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, insisted in an interview, saying improvements in the program will prove the critics are wrong. "We just need to make sure we take all the bugs out."
Last year North Korea fired a missile over Japan, helping stir the current defensive push. But Republicans have also seized upon anti-missile defense as an issue. In March, after the White House yielded to pressure and dropped long-standing objections to anti-missile deployments, the Senate and House voted overwhelmingly for the United States to build a defensive system based on what are known as "hit to kill" interceptors.
Last Thursday the House reiterated that stance, approving a bill passed by the Senate in March that calls for deploying the system as soon as technologically possible. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill.
Now the question is whether there is any reason to think the weapon can actually work reliably and, if so, when a system might be built. Congress is pushing for an anti-missile force to be set up as soon as 2003 or 2005, and the Pentagon says that such dates may be feasible.
Lyles and other Pentagon leaders say that the run of testing flops has forced major overhauls, and that in coming months feats of interception will prove the weapon's feasibility.
But critics say political considerations, including a Democratic desire to deprive Republicans of a campaign issue, are triumphing over scientific truth. They are concerned that with deployment of a missile system, Washington might abandon the proven approach of diplomacy and arms control in favor of a potentially false sense of security backed by a faulty defense system.
"It makes us feel good," said Joseph Cirincione, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But it's just the illusion of protection."
Over the decades, the United States has sunk about $110 billion into anti-missile arms and research. Successes have been rare.
In March, in the New Mexican desert, the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, the most advanced interceptor the Pentagon is testing against targets, was fired toward a mock warhead. The 6-foot "kill vehicle" missed its target.
Even so, the Pentagon claimed success in 16 of 17 test goals, though weeks later it sheepishly admitted that two of four was a more accurate portrayal.
This Tuesday, the same balky interceptor is to be fired again from the White Sands Missile Range, probably to the accompaniment of hundreds of crossed fingers. To date, since the early 1990s, THAAD has cost taxpayers $3.9 billion. Its main contractor is Lockheed Martin Corp., which was fined $15 million for the failure in March.
The troubled system is but one of a small army of similar defensive arms undergoing development. The culmination is to be a large interceptor meant to shield the nation -- not just soldiers, ships and battlefields -- from enemy attack.
Claims of Success, Series of Failures
The hit-to-kill effort grew out of the realization, decades ago, that a defense system based on nuclear warheads would do more harm than good. Fiery blasts from interceptors tipped with nuclear arms might destroy even distant enemy warheads, but they would also produce huge bursts of electromagnetic energy that, like a riot of lightning bolts, could disable electronic devices on the ground, crippling the nation and the military.
Starting in 1976, the Pentagon sought interceptors so extraordinarily precise that nuclear fireballs would be unnecessary. The key was to be destruction by impact, just as when two cars collide. Interceptor and warhead would hit at blinding speeds and destroy each other.
The rub was how to guide the racing interceptor. Ground controls were too slow. So final guidance had to be done by the defensive weapon itself, working autonomously.
The Pentagon's solution was to have the interceptor zero in on heat emanating from enemy warheads. An infrared seeker and a tiny computer would fire small jets, steering the hurtling mass of metal toward sure destruction.
The first test was in February 1983. A mock enemy warhead was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Thousands of miles away in the South Pacific, at Kwajalein Atoll, an interceptor of the Homing Overlay Experiment blasted off. Unfortunately it missed the warhead by a wide margin. New tests in May and December of that year also failed.
In June 1984, however, an interceptor smashed a mock target to bits.
"We successfully 'hit a bullet with a bullet' for the first time," Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson of the Air Force, head of the Pentagon's anti-missile program, told Congress. The interceptor, he added, had worked by zeroing in on "a warhead with its inherent heat."
But the Pentagon had actually raised that heat artificially so the test was easier, investigators at the congressional General Accounting Office reported years later. The doctoring was done by heating the mock warhead before launch to 100 degrees. And in flight, the long warhead was instructed to fly sideways, exposing a greater surface area to the distant heat seeker.
The congressional team bluntly noted that dozens of public statements by Defense Department officials had failed to mention "the steps taken to enhance the target's signature."
The next hit-to-kill test, in January 1991, was also touted as a major success. It not only demolished a mock warhead but was said to have succeeded in ignoring two inflatable decoys. The ability to ignore false targets is considered crucial in anti-missile warfare, as foes are expected to scatter decoys and chaff around warheads in hopes of confusing and defeating any defense.
But investigators from the congressional accounting office reported later that the two decoys had been tethered to either side of the dummy warhead, and the interceptor's computer had been programmed to pick out the target in the middle.
In 1992 another interceptor blasted off, only this time the system was allowed to try to freely distinguish between a mock warhead and a decoy. It missed both.
Over the years, all other tests of such hit-to-kill interceptors have failed.
"It's amazing," said John Pike, head of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington skeptical of missile defenses. "If you talk about clean, unambiguous, hit-a-bullet-with-a-bullet kinds of tests, they still haven't done it."
A $28 Billion Shield or an Empty Shell?
In 1997, the reliability crisis prompted the Pentagon to appoint a panel headed by Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff. Its blistering report, issued in February 1998, found the failures rooted in poor design and fabrication, lax management and lack of rigorous government oversight.
Managers tended "to trivialize the causes of these costly failures," the panel said, adding that aggressive new test schedules had joined with such callousness to produce a "rush to failure."
As if on cue, the next flight test of THAAD failed. So did its next experiment, on March 29.
Pentagon officials say the misses seem to be rooted in different kinds of breakdowns, the diversity of which they call worrisome.
In an interview, Lyles of the anti-missile program said the failures had been traced to things like dirty optics, broken wires and empty fuel tanks. But a quality-control revolution, he asserted, would soon end the troubles.
"It's a hard business," Lyles said. "But I'm confident we can do it."
The Pentagon's anti-missile program is soon to test the large interceptor now envisioned for national missile defense. Its kill vehicle weighs just 121 pounds and is less than 4 feet long -- smaller, and perhaps trickier, than THAAD's.
Beginning around August, a 45-foot interceptor is to try to smash mock warheads in a total of four separate tests before June 2000. The Clinton administration then plans to make a decision on whether to respond to the congressional call and actually deploy a network of at least 20 and perhaps as many as 200 interceptors.
The cost of such a force has been estimated at up to $28 billion. Its interceptors, possibly needing to fly far to hit enemy warheads, would be 55 feet long.
Coming in an election year, with the White House eager to deny the Republicans any chance to look stronger on national defense, the decision is widely expected to be a green light. Construction work at aerospace industry plants would also mean big money for vote-rich states like California.
The interceptors, based in North Dakota or Alaska, or both, are to be able to destroy warheads launched by rogue nations like Iran or North Korea, both of which are developing long-range missiles. The system is also to have some effectiveness against an accidental launching from China or Russia.
Experts say any version of the plan would clash with the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, which limits defenses in hopes of discouraging costly new arms races. Washington and Moscow might agree to an initial deployment in North Dakota, experts add, since Russia already has a small defensive force. But a second deployment in Alaska, they say, would require more extensive treaty modifications to which Moscow might object.
But many critics fear the costly project will be little more than an empty shell. Even if the interceptor can be made to destroy dummy targets, they say, an enemy might challenge it with real warheads and feints of unexpected design.
Richard Garwin, a physicist and anti-missile foe, said North Korea -- long suspected of working on biological weapons, in particular smallpox, a deadly scourge -- might load a missile with hundreds of bomblets filled with lethal germs. The bomblets would be impossible to hit, he said, and could be widely dispersed.
"We don't have a clue about how to deal with that," Garwin said.
Critics also note that enemies can always sidestep any anti-missile defense by simply avoiding the use of ballistic missiles. Boats, trucks, airplanes or cruise missiles could deliver weapons of mass destruction to U.S. cities.
The best way of dealing with all the dangers, critics say, is to deter foes with the threat of swift and massive retaliation -- a policy, they note, that has worked for half a century.
But some experts, including some military officials, worry that deterrence might fail in the future, especially with rogue states. A backup, they argue, is increasingly needed and can be made to work, despite the rash of testing failures.
Hans Mark, the Pentagon's top scientist, recently gave what appeared to be the administration's strongest thumbs-up to date. In March he told the American Physical Society that there was "no question" that the United States could and should build a nationwide defense.
"By definition," Mark said, "this is feasible."
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company