USA Today
July 5, 2000
Pg. 7

Science Just First Challenge For Missile Shield

Friday, system gets a last shot to prove itself before president makes a decision on deployment

By Andrea Stone, USA Today

WASHINGTON - If designing a national missile defense system to neutralize the threat of a missile attack were only ''rocket science,'' it would be a cinch.

But consider: A small number of nuclear-tipped warheads surrounded by decoys are hurtling through space toward the United States at 15,000 mph. With minutes to react, you must fire supersmart, hit-to-kill interceptors that will find and destroy the warheads. It is one of the most complicated technological feats ever attempted. Think about hitting a bullet with a bullet.

Now think about missing.

''If one warhead gets through, you've got more dead Americans than every war put together,'' said John Pike, a weapons analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.

Analysts say nothing short of perfection will do. Which is why so much is riding on a test Friday of the system scientists are developing to protect the nation from missiles. Hit or miss, the test is the last before President Clinton's self-imposed fall deadline to make the initial decision on whether to deploy such a system by 2005.

The president must weigh more than whether this ground-based national missile defense system will protect all 50 states from a limited nuclear, biological or chemical ballistic missile attack launched by such potential enemies as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. NMD has become an issue in the presidential campaign. It is the bogeyman for critics who say deploying it will trigger a new, worldwide arms race.

Indeed, Clinton must consider the system's impact on arms control - the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty forbids construction of missile defenses - and how it will affect relations with Russia, which opposes the plan. He must decide whether the State Department's downgrading of ''rogue states'' such as North Korea and Iran to ''countries of concern'' and moves toward reconciliation on the Korean peninsula render the proposed $60 billion system unnecessary.

Anticipating threats

How things have changed in just two years. In 1998, a bipartisan commission led by former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld contradicted previous intelligence estimates and reported that North Korea could develop ballistic missiles capable of hitting U.S. cities within five years. It said Iran could do the same by the end of this decade. As if on cue, both North Korea and Iran confirmed the threat that year by test-firing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

After years of dismissing NMD as too costly and unnecessary, the Clinton administration did an election-year about-face, giving the green light to developers. But the president said a final decision to deploy a limited system capable of bringing down tens of warheads would be based on four criteria: the threat; the impact of deployment on arms control and relations with Russia; the cost; and the readiness of the technology.

It's the technology that most concerns Pentagon officials. The system now envisioned is a global network of satellites, radar stations, communications relays and booster rockets designed to send 130-pound ''kill vehicles'' crashing into incoming warheads, destroying them on impact.

''We have a complex test ahead of us and a big challenge to make this work,'' Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said at a recent briefing.

''It's clearly a high-risk program,'' said Jacques Gansler, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. ''And it's not a high probability of being able to precisely get everything to work on this flight.''

Friday's test, which will cost $100 million and take place in the evening Pacific Coast time, is the last of three planned before Defense Secretary William Cohen makes his recommendation to the White House about deployment. Delayed twice since April, the test will be the first that links the interceptor with ground radar, which will give last-minute instructions on where to find the dummy warhead in space. Sixteen more tests are planned before the system is deployed.

The first flight test last October successfully intercepted a target warhead launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Faulty heat-seeking sensors caused the interceptor to miss in a second test in January.

Although Pentagon officials initially said they needed two successful intercepts to give their support, they now say a miss Friday could be as good as a hit if the problem results from a mechanical, rather than a design, flaw. ''It depends what type of failure it was,'' Gansler said. Plus, he and other officials say they could squeeze in a fourth test, if needed, this fall.

Still, the task is formidable. A recent General Accounting Office report noted that since 1983, various Pentagon missile defense programs have tried 14 times to intercept dummy warheads in space. They succeeded only four times, a 29% intercept rate.

In the event of a real attack, the system would fire three or four interceptors at each incoming warhead to prevent catastrophic ''leaks.'' Far from overkill, the strategy acknowledges that some interceptors might home in on harmless decoys instead of the lethal warheads they accompany.

Decoy controversy

Dozens of scientists have accused the Pentagon of ''dumbing down'' tests to make the system appear better at discriminating between decoys and warheads than it really is. Among the most vocal critics has been Theodore Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology missile expert and former Navy scientific adviser who outlined his concerns in reports to the White House.

Postol accuses the Pentagon of ''scientific fraud.'' He said political pressure to develop a system quickly has ''created an environment where doctoring data and fraudulent experiments are seen as acceptable.'' The scientist said officials have ''rigged'' tests.

Because objects released in the vacuum of space move at the same speed, the only way to tell them apart is by their infrared, or heat, signature. The kill vehicle's sensors see that signature as twinkling points of light. The contour and tumbling motion of cone-shaped decoys and striped balloons produce light patterns that are virtually indistinguishable from those of real warheads.

In contrast, a large, featureless balloon - like the one in Friday's test - twinkles much less and thus is easier to distinguish from the real thing. Also, earlier tests employed multiple decoys, as would a real attack. Friday's test will use only one.

Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a Pentagon missile defense spokesman, strongly disputes Postol, who he said opposes NMD ''philosophically as well as scientifically.'' Though he concedes that later tests have used simpler decoys, ''they're the kind we'd expect to see'' from relatively unsophisticated potential enemies such as North Korea.

Lehner said outside scientists don't have access to classified data, which detail ''more than three dozen'' ways to tell the difference between decoys and warheads, including infrared heat signatures, radar reflection, size and tumbling characteristics. The Pentagon won't release the information because that ''would help a country like North Korea defeat our system,'' he said.

But an independent review panel headed by retired Air Force general Larry Welch did have access to classified information. Last month, it came to conclusions similar to those reached by Postol about the system's ability to tell decoys from warheads. An unclassified summary of the panel's report warns that more advanced decoys are likely in the future, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish them from missiles.

Nevertheless, the Welch report generally endorsed the program. While it said the system's compressed development timetable ''remains high risk,'' it saw ''no technical reason to change the schedule.'' The NMD system is expected to take eight years from drawing board to deployment.

By comparison, the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense System, which would protect troops against short- and medium-range missiles, is expected to take 15 years to develop. In a previous report, the Welch panel warned of a ''rush to failure'' in the NMD program.

Welch and the General Accounting Office have noted other problems. Development of the final system's booster is eight months behind, and it won't be tested until next year. That booster will be faster and will vibrate more than the booster used in tests so far; whether the bigger rocket will damage the kill vehicle is unknown.

Also, because of safety, debris and flight-path restrictions, all test warheads must fly from east to west over the Pacific Ocean, rather than on a more realistic trajectory from Asia to North America. That makes it difficult to test the effectiveness of sensors and satellites positioned to detect an attack from the west. ''The test envelope needs to be expanded,'' the Welch report concluded.

Finally, in a real attack, the Pentagon obviously wouldn't have advance warning and wouldn't know exactly what type of missile to look for and the path it is flying, as it will in Friday's test.

Changing defenses

Pinpoint accuracy wasn't critical to the nation's last, and only, missile shield. The Safeguard system, which protected the underground ballistic missile arsenal in North Dakota, relied on nuclear-tipped missiles to destroy enemy warheads by exploding near them. It was deployed for six months before Congress pulled the plug in 1976.

The NMD system now being developed also is different from the ''star wars'' initiative proposed by President Reagan in 1983, which envisioned destroying enemy missiles by firing lasers from space-based satellites. Although it builds on research begun then, the new system is more modest in size and will rely solely on unarmed, hit-to-kill interceptors based in underground silos near Fairbanks, Alaska.

Officials hope to deploy the first 20 ground-based interceptors there in 2005 and add 80 more by 2007. Depending on the shape of future threats, a second site to handle missiles from the Middle East could be added in North Dakota. That would bring the number of interceptors to 250 by 2011.

That timetable depends on Clinton giving the go-ahead this fall on construction contracts for a high-powered radar station on Alaska's Shemya Island. Pentagon officials say that unless work begins next spring, weather in the Aleutians will prevent them from making the 2005 deadline.

But the final deployment decision - the one to build the interceptors - won't be made until 2003. So no matter what Clinton decides before he leaves office, it will be up to the next president to actually put the system in place.

If that president is Al Gore, the system will likely differ little from the one proposed now.

If George W. Bush is elected, its shape and size could differ dramatically. Bush favors a more extensive system that would also include sea-based interceptors and perhaps space-based lasers. He said he won't rule out any options, even if they violate the ABM pact.

The idea of placing Navy ships off the coasts of hostile countries such as North Korea is popular among Republicans and is gaining support among Democrats. The ships would launch interceptor missiles during the ''boost-phase,'' when the enemy warhead is moving relatively slowly through the atmosphere and its bright, hot engine exhaust makes an easy target.

But there are technical barriers to that option. An interceptor fast enough to take down a missile in its first few minutes of flight would be too big to fit into the vertical launch tubes on surface ships. Only the Navy's huge ballistic missile submarines, which carry part of the nation's nuclear arsenal, could accommodate it.

Another option would be to speed development of the Navy's regional defense system to shoot down short-range ballistic missiles in space. Although that system is allowed under the ABM treaty, some analysts say it suffers from the same inability to tell real warheads from decoys.

In any case, the Navy says such sea-based options won't be ready until at least 2010, five years after the threat of ballistic missile attack is projected to become real.