Missile system faces big test

'Star Wars' practice would gauge ability to stop nuclear attack

By Deb Price / Tuesday, June 15, 1999 Detroit News Washington Bureau

    WASHINGTON -- A controversial "Star Wars" missile defense system faces its first critical test in August -- and it could be ready to deploy as early as 2005.
    Advocates say it would protect the United States from accidental nuclear launches or small-scale missile attacks. The land-based, "hit-to-kill" system faces its first big test in August when it tries to knock down a rocket over the Pacific Ocean.
    "There will be a lot of white knuckles that day," Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner said.
    If all goes well with the test and three other tests over the coming year, the president and Congress could decide to deploy it.
    "The United States has no defense against ballistic missile attack," Lehner said. "And we believe that within the next few years, countries like North Korea or Iran or other rogue nations may have the technology that will enable them to send a long-range missile carrying a weapon of mass destruction ... to one or more of our 50 states."
    Debate over creating a national missile defense system has been raging since the 1960s. The latest proposed system is a scaled-back version of President Reagan's idea of space-based lasers that in theory would stop a huge missile attack.
    But, with the end of the Cold War, the world has changed dramatically: No longer does the United States fear a huge nuclear assault from the former Soviet Union. Instead, developing countries seeking to amass nuclear arsenals are considered a far more immediate threat.
    But critics say even the scaled-back defense system would be costly (as much as another $50 billion) and technologically unfeasible. They also charge that the system couldn't protect the United States from terrorists, who could simply smuggle in a weapon or build it here before setting it off.
   Michigan views
    "I'd rather see the money go for humanitarian things rather than the possibility that we might get bombed," says Judith Morris, a 56-year-old respiratory technician at St. Joseph's Hospital in Clinton Township. "I think women are not as concerned about nuclear missiles -- it seems like more of a man thing."
    But Anna Hasten of Clinton Township disagrees.
    "We should have something to protect ourselves," says the 69-year-old retired bank manager. "I think the risk (of nuclear attack) has gone up, especially since China stole knowledge from us. I don't think it'll happen in my lifetime, but I worry about my kids."
    The idea behind the system is simple:
    Upon detecting an incoming hostile missile, a rocket known as the "interceptor" would be launched at it. Once it nearly reached the hostile missile, the interceptor would release its "kill vehicle" - a squared-shaped, weaponless instrument that would steer itself into the missile. The impact would destroy the missile.
    In the August test, the kill vehicle gets its first chance to pick out the warhead from trick decoys and destroy it.
    The target -- a modified Minuteman missile with a dummy warhead -- will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. About 20 minutes later, 4,200 miles away at Kwajalein (pronounced (kwa-ja-lynn) in the Marshall Islands, the two-stage rocket carrying the kill vehicle will be sent up to meet it.
    If it works, the kill vehicle will collide with the target missile after about 10 minutes somewhere between 100 to 200 miles above the Earth.
    Lehner said the missile and kill vehicle will collide at high speeds, guaranteeing complete disintegration. "A real warhead would be pulverized, it would burn up. There would be no nuclear rain, no nuclear explosion."
   A done deal?
    The August test -- costing $75 million and lasting 30 minutes -- is the first of four before next year's deadline for a final go-ahead. Next, the radar and satellite systems that would detect and track a missile attack will be tested.
    Next year, officials from the Pentagon, the intelligence community and international treaty experts will evaluate the results. Eventually, a recommendation might be sent to the president, who has the ultimate say.
    "Nothing is ever a done deal, but this is getting closer to being a done deal," says John Pike, a defense analyst who opposes the system at the Federation of American Scientists.
    "It has a lot to do with political posturing and not much to do with national security planning," says Pike, referring to the upcoming White House election.
    Critics point out that a similar "hit-to-kill" system the Pentagon is developing to protect U.S. troops and allies from enemy missiles has been plagued by problems. But the so-called "theater high-altitude area defense", or THAAD, scored a big victory last week when it finally hit its flying target in an experiment at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
    Under the current Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, Lehner says, the United States could put 100 interceptors in North Dakota. That potentially would protect all of the United States from a small missile attack from the Middle East. But it would leave Alaska, Hawaii or San Diego vulnerable to attack from North Korea because of the distances involved, he said. To cover the entire country, interceptors would probably be best placed in Alaska, because of its location.
    Lehner says the plan would be to deploy between 20 to 100 interceptors. Pentagon cost estimates are far lower than those by critics: $11.5 billion to test and deploy the system, and $15 billion to operate it over 20 years.
    "I really don't think it can be made to work without a fairly high probability of failing," says Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids. "I took a good hard look at it and decided you simply couldn't do it, you couldn't make it work," says the trained physicist.
    Ehlers was the only Republican in the House to oppose legislation May 20 committing the United States to deploy the system once it's feasible. President Clinton plans to sign the bill in coming weeks. Later, Congress would have to authorize full funding for it.

    Copyright 1999, The Detroit News