Missile defense faces decisive test

Shield: Limited anti-missile system would intercept attacks by rogue nations, if it works.

June 02, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- One day early next month, a 4 1/2 -foot-long "kill vehicle" will hurtle through the Earth's atmosphere and try to destroy a mock enemy warhead more than 60 miles above the Pacific Ocean. The result could determine the future of a 17-year-old quest for a national missile defense system to protect Americans from intercontinental ballistic weapons.

The July test is essentially a tie-breaker in the Pentagon's efforts to intercept an incoming enemy missile outside the Earth's atmosphere; one test last fall succeeded, the second in January failed. It is also the last test before the Pentagon's late summer recommendation to President Clinton on whether a national missile defense is technologically workable.

The president is expected to decide in the fall whether to begin construction of a 100-interceptor missile system. His go-ahead would usher in the first 20 missiles by 2005.

The $21 billion anti-missile system, which would cost another $36 billion to operate through 2026, is designed to protect the United States from as many as two dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from so-called rogue nations such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

Such a limited missile defense would be useless against an attack by Russia, which has thousands of nuclear missiles. Still, the U.S. plan has infuriated Russian leaders, because it would violate the 1972 U.S.-Soviet treaty banning national missile shields and alter the balance of power. Russia has repeatedly refused American requests for a treaty amendment that would allow the system.

The Pentagon has said it wants two successful tests before it makes a recommendation, and top officials realize that the upcoming test could be a watershed. "If it's another failure and the program's not mature, I won't recommend going forward at this particular point," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told Seapower magazine in its April issue.

Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, the Air Force officer in charge of the missile defense efforts, expects success, saying his workers are checking and rechecking every wire and widget.

The proposed U.S. interceptor missiles, to be based in central Alaska, would be a distant and diminutive cousin of President Ronald Reagan's 1983 vision. His Strategic Defense Initiative, a vast array of space-based lasers, orbiting battle stations and hundreds of ground-based interceptors, became known to its detractors as "Star Wars."

Sounding much like a coach before a big game, Kadish is enthusiastic - but worried. "One of the things I worry about a lot ... is the one wire that shakes loose in the system that prevents the test from being successful," he said recently.

As the launch time approaches- the tentative date is July 7 - the voices of advocates and foes of national missile defense are getting louder.

Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, echoes others in his party who favor a more robust missile defense with sea- and space-based weapons to accompany the ground-based interceptors. Like Kadish and other Pentagon officials, Kyl is not willing to say that a failed test next month should shelve construction. The test, he said, should be "pretty successful."

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group for arms control that opposed Reagan's SDI, argued in a recent report that the 100 planned interceptors are "unworkable and counterproductive." They could easily be confused by decoys that divert them from their targets, the group said. In addition, the American Physical Society, the nation's largest group of physicists, said more testing against decoys is needed before the United States reaches a decision to construct a national missile defense.

And MIT Professor Theodore A. Postol, a former Pentagon adviser on ballistic missiles, charged in a letter to the White House last month that the Pentagon is rigging its test program to show that the interceptor can distinguish between missiles and decoys. "There is no way to select the right object, given the architecture of the system," Postol said in an interview. "These guys have politicized the most basic science and engineering."

The Pentagon vehemently denies that any tests have been falsified and says Postol is referring to an earlier Boeing kill vehicle that has been scrapped for a more sophisticated one built by Raytheon. The newer version has updated sensor and optical systems that can spot and bypass a decoy before zeroing in and destroying a warhead, said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon's missile defense program.

Meanwhile, three former national security advisers - John M. Deutch, deputy defense secretary and CIA director under President Clinton, Harold Brown, President Carter's defense secretary, and John P. White, deputy defense secretary under Clinton - say ground-based interceptors are "not the best approach" and fail to address certain threats.

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