Index

Copyright 2000 Newspaper Publishing PLC  
The Independent (London)
July 7, 2000, Friday

SECTION: FOREIGN NEWS; Pg. 14

LENGTH: 544 words

HEADLINE: SON OF STAR WARS: AMERICA'S NEW MISSILE DEFENCES PUT TO TEST;
 DESPITE PROTESTS FROM CHINA, RUSSIA, MUCH OF EUROPE AND CANADA, THE 'NMD' BANDWAGON IS ROLLING RAPIDLY TOWARDS REALITY

BYLINE: Andrew Marshall In Washington

BODY:


SOMETIME IN the early hours of tomorrow morning London time, there may be a big flash of light high over the Pacific Ocean. It will be scrutinised carefully, not by astrologers or astronomers, but by soldiers and politicians in Pyongyang and Tehran, Peking and Moscow, London and Paris.

This is the decisive test of America's new National Missile Defense, which aims to safeguard the North American continent against accidental missile discharge or aggressive attack by rogue states. It may be a turning point in the post-Cold War world, a moment when the military and political tensions, which have been declining over the years, are revived.

The trouble is that it isn't much of a test, that no one knows if the scheme will work and it isn't clear against whom it will be deployed. What is clear is that it is a crucial political event. NMD, a distant relation of President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars project, is one of the main items on the Washington agenda. There is rising pressure from the American right to deploy NMD, a theme taken up strongly by George W Bush, the Republican candidate for president. Al Gore, his Democratic opponent, has climbed on the bandwagon for fear of looking weak. So when the Pentagon chiefs take the test results along to William Cohen, the Secretary for Defense, and later President Bill Clinton, there is strong momentum for a decision to go ahead.

A Minuteman rocket will be fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Los Angeles, at around 2am GMT tomorrow. It will also release a fake warhead, a balloon decoy. Fifteen minutes later, a 54in-long 130lb "exoatmospheric kill vehicle" will be launched from Kwajalein Atoll on the other side of the Pacific. It must find the warhead, differentiate it from the decoy, and hit it at a relative speed of up to 16,000 miles per hour, destroying it.

If the test is deemed a success, then the President could give the order to start pouring concrete for a radar station at Shemya in the Aleutian islands. But whatever he decides will be highly controversial.

The first problem is technical. One of the key criteria the President has said he will use to decide on deployment is the technical readiness of the system, and that is still very opaque. The tests so far have been a mixed bag, and critics say it is not even clear what they are really testing. Even if the next test fails it may make no difference. The critics call this the "rush to failure." The second problem is political. Another criterion is the impact on relations with other countries, and Russia and China have both made it clear they are opposed. The third problem is cost. This system will cost about $ 60bn when fully constructed.

The last problem is that NMD is aimed at countering a theoretical threat from countries like Iran and North Korea - a threat which does not exist. Critics suggest that the intelligence process of threat assessment has been deeply politicised as a way of creating a justification for a massive boost to the profits of defence companies.

As one critic, John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, has put it: "This is a political decision driven by the need to defend Al Gore from Republicans rather than defend America against missiles."