August 26, 1999
Missile Defense Skeptical Revival
By James T. Hackett
You can tell when a new Pentagon weapon begins to show real promise - that's when the critics get all worked up. It is happening now with missile defense. After years of effort, the technology finally is coming together. In June, the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor hit its target over the New Mexico desert. On Aug. 2, it did it again, for the second time in six weeks. This time, the intercept was more than 60 miles high, outside the Earth's atmosphere, where the interceptors of the National Missile Defense (NMD) program also will operate.
Earlier this year, the new model Patriot PAC-3 hit its target, and in an Army war game in June soldiers launched their Patriot PAC-2s, the same as the ones that stopped Scuds in Desert Storm, at four incoming missiles. They stopped all four. This was especially gratifying since the Patriot intercepts in Desert Storm had been called failures by professors of the arms-control program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The principal authors of that view eight years ago, MIT professors George Lewis and Theodore Postol, are at it again with an article entitled "Why National Missile Defense Won't Work" in the August issue of Scientific American. This time their co-author is John Pike, who runs a public affairs campaign against missile defense for the Federation of American Scientists.
For years, these and other arms-control advocates have been making the same arguments: Missile defense will not work or is not yet ready, the cost is too high, it can easily be overcome by countermeasures and deploying defenses will ruin opportunities for arms control. The claim that missile defense will not work is disputed by recent successes, and the cost of all missile-defense programs is less than 2 percent of the annual defense budget. As for arms control, existing agreements are bad enough, having held back effective U.S. missile defenses for years.
With their arguments being shot down with each successful intercept, the opponents of missile defense now are emphasizing countermeasures. They claim any missile defense can be overcome by countermeasures. Don't build defenses, they say, because the enemy may be able to develop some way to overcome them. Academics love this argument; they spend hours dreaming up devices to put on ballistic missiles to make them hard to intercept.
In their magazine article, the authors describe countermeasures ranging from submunitions to balloons and other decoys, to cooled shrouds for the warheads. But countermeasures are difficult to make work, add weight when weight is at a premium and most are theoretical rather than real. Col. Pete Worden, Air Force deputy director for operational requirements, has said "most of these countermeasures are a lot harder, a lot more expensive and a lot less effective than the initial enthusiasm."
Last year, the Boeing vice president in charge of national missile defense said the NMD seeker "performed spectacularly well" in flight tests, effectively discriminating warheads from a complex mix of targets. And in the August THAAD flight test, the seeker on the interceptor proved its ability to distinguish the warhead from the rocket booster and debris. Recent advances in seeker technologies have improved their ability, and they are getting better all the time. They certainly will be effective against what is called the C-1 threat of relatively simple missiles of the rogue regimes that are of current concern. Once deployed, the plan is to upgrade the national missile defense to deal with more challenging C-2 and C-3 threats that include countermeasures and multiple warheads.
Even though countermeasures are largely hypothetical, the Defense Department understands the need for seekers and sensors that can distinguish warheads from decoys and other devices. There always is competition between offense and defense. At present, the offense is dominant. Longer-range ballistic missiles are unstoppable, except by Russia's nuclear-armed missile defense around Moscow. In the United States, the defense is playing catch-up. What is important now is to get missile defenses in the field as soon as possible, and then work on improving them.
Opponents of missile defense forget that its main value is deterrence - to stop an adversary from spending billions to acquire missiles in the first place. And if he does so anyway, to deter him from using them. The claim that missile defenses would be useless because of possible countermeasures is a false argument made by arms controllers trying to block U.S. defenses. It should be rejected out of hand.
James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.