U.S. revives effort to create missile defense system

Toledo Blade June 30, 1999


WASHINGTON - President Clinton is expected to sign into law next week a bill passed overwhelmingly by Congress to deploy a national ballistic missile defense system if it proves technologically feasible.

Mr. Clinton's is a recent conversion. He came into office opposing missile defenses and until this year cut funding for the programs he inherited from former President Bush.

North Korea helped change his mind - and those of some skeptics in Congress. The small hermitic nation kicked new life into the U.S. ballistic missile defense program last summer when it shocked U.S. intelligence agencies by firing a multistage rocket over Japan.

Allegations that China stole U.S. nuclear secrets built momentum. A recent congressional report said China might be able to deploy long-range missiles with multiple warheads within a decade. The "Cox Report" also said China might pass on nuclear know-how to North Korea and other "rogue" nations hostile to the United States.

Some $56 billion has been spent to research and develop missile defenses since former President Reagan created in 1983 what is now called the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, yet two central questions remain: Will they work? If so, will they improve U.S. security?

In July a bipartisan commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense in the Ford administration, warned that the United States "might have little or no warning before operational deployment" of a ballistic missile by a hostile nation.

A month later, Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a letter to Congress saying, in essence, don't worry. Shelton said the intelligence community believed the United States would know five to 10 years in advance before a hostile nation could launch a missile with intercontinental range.

A week later, North Korea fired one over Japan. The Taepo Dong 1, if armed with a nuclear warhead, could reach Alaska, Hawaii, possibly Seattle. With a smaller, lighter warhead containing a biological weapon such as anthrax, it could reach most West Coast cities.

Retired Vice Adm. J.D. Williams, father of one Navy missile defense program, concluded that North Korea "will have a missile that can strike us before we'll have a missile that can shoot it down." Recent news reports indicate North Korea may test a longer range missile this summer, the Taepo Dong 2.

The Ballistic Missile Defense Office has spent $56 billion since 1984, but the only missile-defense system in place is the short-range Patriot, which had indifferent success against Iraqi Scud-Bs during the Gulf War. Some scientists say ballistic missile interception - hitting a bullet with a bullet - is so difficult that it cannot be accomplished at an affordable price.

Lisbeth Gronlund, George Lewis, Theodore Postol, and David Wright, scientists associated with the Defense and Arms Control Studies program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, think the idea is a waste of time and money: "The national missile defense currently being proposed in the United States would be easily neutralized, costly in financial terms, and likely very damaging to U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear disarmament."

"This dog won't hunt," says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. "Fifteen intercept tests [in space] have been attempted since 1982. Thirteen have failed."

The MIT scientists and Mr. Pike are associated with groups strongly committed to arms control. But national missile defense also has been criticized from more hawkish quarters.

In a report to the Pentagon last year, a panel headed by former Air Force Chief Gen. Larry Welch scored the program for underestimating technical challenges, setting overly optimistic development schedules, planning an insufficient number of tests, and overall mismanagement. The Welch group called the effort "a rush to failure."

Virtually all U.S. ballistic missile defense programs have been plagued by delays and cost overruns. Especially troubled has been the program on which the Clinton administration has spent the most money, the Army's Theater High Altitude Air Defense system.

The THAAD program is more than six years behind schedule, $5.8 billion over budget, and suffered six consecutive failures in attempts to intercept missiles in flight. A seventh test, conducted earlier this month, was successful.

Many more tests must succeed before the THAAD missile can go into production. But the intercept of a target missile at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico has strengthened the hand of those who believe ballistic missile defense can work if the program is managed properly. Ambassador Henry Cooper, who ran the Strategic Defense Initiative during the Bush administration, is one of them.

"Had the Clinton administration continued the program I left in place, the Navy Theater Wide program would be deployed by now," Mr. Cooper says. "With the right sensors [to detect incoming missiles], it could defend the United States."

Mr. Cooper shares the Welch panel's low opinion of missile-defense management but said an accelerated program would work if management problems are fixed.

"The Navy's Polaris program in the 1950s overcame much more significant technological hurdles and still deployed the first of our strategic submarines in under four years," he said.

The main barriers to an effective ballistic missile defense are political, not technological, say Mr. Cooper and Mr. Williams, especially the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty negotiated by the United States and Soviet Union in 1972. That treaty, as amended in 1974, prohibits space or sea-based missile defense systems.

"Sea-based systems would provide far and away the fastest, and space-based systems the most comprehensive and cost-effective missile defenses," argues Frank Gaffney, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

A panel headed by Mr. Cooper has proposed a sea-based system that, it says, could be deployed within four years at a cost of no more than $8 billion.

Lt. Gen. John Costello, commander of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command, said both the time line and cost estimate are "optimistic."

Retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, deputy executive director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank that is frequently critical of defense spending, said not enough research has been done to know how well a sea-based system would work.

"The Navy program looks good now because there have been so many failures in the Army program," he said.

Mr. Cooper's envisioned hybrid system would consist of the Navy's Theater Wide program, linked to satellites and Army and Air Force radars. Super-fast missiles being developed for the Navy would be based on Aegis cruisers with already-existing space and ground-based sensors that could detect an incoming attack. Since this system would be mobile, it could protect both the United States and allies from any likely threat posed by rogue nations, Mr. Williams says.

But while such a system might be relatively easy and inexpensive to develop, under the ABM treaty, which is specifically designed to prevent nationwide defenses, the Navy can use only Aegis radar to guide Aegis missiles. The Aegis radar lacks the range to protect more than a sliver of the United States.

"We can share our satellite data with the Israelis [for their Arrow anti-missile program], but not with the Navy," Cooper said. "How crazy is that?"

The Pentagon selected Boeing last year to build a ground-based national ballistic missile defense system that complies with the U.S. interpretation of the ABM treaty. The treaty permits one ground-based site, with no more than 100 interceptors, provided it is not capable of defending the entire United States. A site in North Dakota that could help protect U.S. ballistic missiles based there would comply with the treaty, U.S. officials believe, because portions of Alaska and Hawaii could not be defended from that location.

If President Clinton decides by June next year that it is ready to deploy, the system could be in place by 2003, said Brig. Gen. Willie Nance, the program manager.

The Welch panel and the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, say the schedule is unrealistic. Cooper agrees.

"This is by far the most expensive way of going about missile defense," he said. "This administration claims it can build a national ground-based system for about a third of what we estimated, and do it in three years after a decision to deploy. This is simply a fraud."

Another dispute has to do with the U.S. commitment to use only "kinetic kill vehicles" that hit incoming missiles head-on - a truly demanding task. Russian interceptors, and earlier U.S. defense missiles, had small nuclear warheads, which required them only to get near an incoming missile. The Reagan administration, in part for fear that electromagnetic pulses generated by nuclear detonations would interfere with sensors and satellites, in part for political reasons, ordered the shift to kinetic kill vehicles.

"We felt that the program managers - both government and contractor - underestimated the degree of difficulty in achieving hit-to-kill," the Welch panel said.

But the manager of the Army's THAAD program, Brig. Gen. Daniel Montgomery, points to the seventh, successful test as proof hit-to-kill will work. "The test went exactly as planned," he said. The six THAAD test failures, he said, were caused by six low-tech problems that had nothing to do with the kinetic kill vehicle.

Adm. Williams agrees. "I am confident hit-to-kill will work. There have been a number of successful tests. But we should have a nuclear backup, just in case."

Ballistic missile defense figures to be a hot issue in the 2000 election. All Republican presidential candidates say it is an urgent priority, one so important that the ABM treaty should be abrogated if it stands in the way of an effective missile defense program.

The Democratic candidates, Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, are less eager to talk about the subject. Neither responded to repeated requests for their views.

But even if ballistic missile defenses work, will any additional security they provide be worth their substantial cost?

Opponents such as Mr. Pike and Mr. Carroll insist that missile defense never will work well enough to abandon reliance on the threat of massive retaliation.

Retired Air Force Gen. Lee Butler, once in charge of U.S. strategic nuclear forces, and Robert Gallucci, a former State Department arms control expert, say the threat posed by rogue nation ballistic missiles is real. But they believe it is far more likely that terrorists will bring weapons of mass destruction into the country in suitcases -- something that expensive missile defenses would do nothing to prevent.

Adm. Williams agrees that the likelihood of a ballistic missile attack is remote. But if the U.S. has no defense against it, nations like China or North Korea or Iran could subject the United States to nuclear blackmail.

Mr. Gaffney points out that the United States has been spending about $4 billion a year on ballistic missile defenses, a relatively small proportion of the Pentagon's annual budget of $270 billion. Besides, he says, "The cost of defending an American city from ballistic missile attack pales into insignificance compared to the cost of rebuilding that city after it's been destroyed."

Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration.