Pentagon backs missile defense even if key test next month fails

Officials confident interceptor can destroy warheads despite flaws

June 21, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Brushing aside criticism that a national missile defense system is unworkable, top Pentagon officials said yesterday that even if a crucial test next month is a failure, they may still tell President Clinton that the system should be built.

The approaching test of an interceptor missile's ability to destroy an enemy warhead in space, scheduled for July 7, is essentially a tie-breaker between a successful intercept last fall and a failed one in January.

The test, costing $100 million, will be the final one before Defense Secretary William S. Cohen makes a recommendation to President Clinton this summer on whether an Alaska-based missile defense system designed to protect all 50 states is "technically feasible."

The president is scheduled to decide this fall whether to go ahead with the Pentagon's plan to build 100 interceptor missiles and an accompanying radar in Alaska that is designed to shoot down as many as 25 missiles fired from North Korea, Iran or other prospective adversaries thought to be developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The missile defense system, which officials said could have 20 missiles operational by 2005, is expected to cost nearly $60 billion to construct and operate through 2026.

Jacques Gansler, the Defense Department's undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, and Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told reporters they are convinced the program is on schedule and workable.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly said they want two successful intercepts of a mock warhead before recommending that the system be built, but Gansler and Kadish said a failure next month wouldn't necessarily mean the Pentagon would recommend against deploying the system.

"Depending on the failure we may still be able to say it's technically feasible," said Gansler. Kadish noted that even in test failures, "we've gathered a whole lot of information that gives us great confidence."

The two officials' comments echo similar ones made by Cohen earlier this month. Asked if he could still approve the system if the July test fails, the defense secretary said: "It depends upon what the failure, if any, would be. If it's something that is minor in nature, that may have an important impact on my decision."

In January, when the interceptor missile failed to strike its target, Pentagon officials blamed it on a frozen tube and termed it a problem that did not raise questions about the basic science of intercepting an incoming enemy missile, known among Pentagon officials as "a bullet hitting a bullet."

But numerous scientists said they doubt the system can distinguish between an enemy warhead and decoys, and other critics are calling for more testing before the president reaches a deployment decision.

Meanwhile, former lawmakers and government officials - including former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, a specialist in military issues, and ex-Defense Secretary William Perry - are also urging delay, either pressing for additional tests before a deployment decision is made or advocating a sea-based defense system they say would be less costly and more practical due to its mobility.

Theodore A. Postol, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former Pentagon adviser on missile defense, said he doubts the system can distinguish between an enemy warhead and a decoy. "There's no way to select the right object," he said.

Gansler said of the critics, "They're wrong."

The system has some two dozen technical means to distinguish a missile from a decoy, the officials said, although most are classified and off limits to public discussion.

Also yesterday, the Pentagon released portions of a report by a missile defense oversight panel headed by retired Gen. Larry D. Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff. Though the report said the United States can technically achieve a missile defense shield, there is a "high risk" that the Pentagon may not be able to have the system ready by 2005, when North Korea is expected to have an ICBM capability. But the panel said there was "no technical reason" to change the test schedule.

The report also said that "critical attention" should be paid to defeating sophisticated decoys that would accompany enemy missiles in an effort to divert the interceptor.

Gansler and Kadish said the points raised by the Welch panel came as no surprise. Over the next four years, they said, there will be 16 more tests, increasingly complex and including more decoys than the single decoy used in recent tests and the one next month.

The July 7 test will be the most demanding to date, officials said. It will be the first time that all parts of the system - from radars to space-based sensors to "battle command" communications systems - are tested together, unlike previous efforts when certain parts of the test were pre-programmed.

"We have a complex test ahead of us and a big challenge to make this work," Kadish said.

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