Raytheon's 'hole in one'

By David Warsh, Globe Columnist, 10/05/99

No program from the Reagan era was more ridiculed than the Strategic Defense Initiative. And indeed, the ''Star Wars'' image of satellite-mounted laser cannons programmed to automatically shoot on sight at upcoming missiles probably never has been further from reality than today.

But on Saturday night a little-known alternative to such space-based platforms paid off spectacularly when a ground-based Raytheon device known as an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle - an EKV - took out a speeding missile 140 miles above the Pacific simply by colliding with it head-on.

The test was a stylized replay of the Patriot vs. Scud duels of the Gulf War, but with different instruments and a greater degree of difficulty - higher, faster and with a decoy.

''What they've done is the equivalent of shooting a hole in one,'' said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a prominent critic of antimissile systems. ''What they have to be able to do is shoot a hole in one every time. Missile defense must work perfectly if it is going to work at all.''

The test started at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, when a Lockeed-Martin Minuteman rocket went up at 10:02 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.

Ten minutes later, another Minuteman was launched from Kwajelein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, 4,300 miles to the west. It was carrying an EKV - a 4-and-a-half-foot rectangular box weiging 120 pounds, equipped with small booster rockets, a three-color sensor designed to discriminate between real warheads and decoys, and plenty of algorithm-driven guidance and telemetry.

The EKV picked up its target from 1,400 miles away, ignored a balloon and smashed the missile. The objects met at a combined speed of 15,000 miles per hour.

Radar monitoring the test showed only a bright light - there is no noise in space. Sheryl Irwin, a Defense Department spokesman who was present, said ''You saw it explode and there was a loud roar - a very happy one that went up from the room. It proves this technology is working and that we can move forward with the program.''

The collision was the first undisputed success in 15 years of trying. Two previous kills were criticized as having been made artificially easy. And indeed, much work on early warning and tracking remains to be done. A central command center must be devised. But once the little crate left its booster, it received no further guidance. It hit the target on its own.

The EKV - the previously untested component in the test - was designed and built by Raytheon Systems Co. in Tucson, Ariz., on a design pioneered by Hughes Electronics. Tucson is the principal missile manufacturing center of the company, assembled when Raytheon acquired the defense businesses of Hughes Aviation, E-Systems, and Texas Instruments.

Raytheon's Andover, Mass., manufacturing site, which still builds Patriot and Hawk missiles, also supplies some 5,000 circuit cards a week for the 15 varieties of missiles now produced in Tucson (or in advanced stages of design there).

Two or three more tests of increasing complexity are scheduled for the EKV before next June, when the Clinton administration has scheduled a decision about whether to deploy the system - and if so, where. Alaska is slated to receive the first set of 100 interceptors. North Dakota wants some too.

The new antimissiles - designed to protect against an occasional rogue missile from a terrorist nation - won't be operational before 2005, according to the Pentagon. Whether that matters or not is anybody's guess, but so far development has been driven by technological benchmarks, instead of the usual spare-no-expense race to completion.

The issue of whether and when to deploy the EKVs threatens to become a political football between Republicans and Democrats, like everything else in this accursed interregnum. Still, the political vagaries ought not to eclipse the proud boast of Jerry K. Lockard, general manager of Raytheon System Co. ''I've been around missilery for a long time, and in my mind it is the most spectacular piece of missilery that has ever been done.''

This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 10/05/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.