July 7, 2000
Watershed For Missile Defense
Test Tonight Heralds Big Policy Decisions
By Roberto Suro, Washington Post Staff Writer
Sometime between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. tonight, a dummy warhead is to be borne aloft on a missile fired from the California coast, and about half an hour later an interceptor launched from a South Pacific atoll will try to find the target and slam into it about 140 miles above the Earth.
Regardless of whether it is a hit or a miss, the results of tonight's $100 million flight test will be closely analyzed from Capitol Hill to the Kremlin because it is the last practice run before the Clinton administration decides whether to begin building the controversial National Missile Defense system.
The otherwise routine exercise has taken on extraordinary significance as officials, even within the administration, debate whether a costly, high-tech shield to defend the nation from ballistic missile attacks is necessary, whether it will work as planned and whether the potential diplomatic damage outweighs its benefits.
Advocates, including presidential candidate George W. Bush and many other Republicans, argue that a missile shield is essential to protect the United States and that the administration's plans do not go far enough. Critics, including several prominent scientists and former Clinton defense officials, contend that the system has too many technical problems and that it will set off a new arms race.
Meanwhile, Russia and China complain that if the United States builds its own missile defense, it will negate their countries' strategic deterrents and give America too much power in the world. The European allies quietly grumble that no real threat exists to justify the effort and that the shield could cause Americans to go their own way in foreign policy without sufficient consideration of their allies.
The process of sifting through these issues will go into high gear moments after the "kill vehicle" and the target warhead race toward each other in the night sky at a combined speed of more than 15,000 miles an hour. Within a few weeks the Pentagon will deliver an assessment of the system's technical capabilities.
By the end of the month the nation's top intelligence officers are due to resolve deep differences over the potential threat of ballistic missile attack and the likely reaction of key nations if President Clinton presses ahead.
Tonight's test will be only the third attempt at an actual intercept. Since the score thus far is one hit and one miss, tonight's result will help shape the verdict on feasibility. This also will be the most complete test of the system because in past attempts the interceptor received more help to find its target than it will tonight.
A key aspect of the test is gauging how well the missile carrying the kill vehicle can be guided toward the incoming warhead by computers rapidly processing data from a high-powered X-band radar and other sensors. In the final seconds, infrared sensors aboard the kill vehicle will attempt to distinguish the warhead from a decoy and home in on the target. If it's a direct hit, the 120-pound kill vehicle will destroy the target simply by kinetic energy, not explosives.
"There's not yet enough evidence to show that the system will work, and Friday's test won't change that," said Robert Park of the American Physical Society, who joined representatives of the Federation of American Scientists and the Union of Concerned Scientists in releasing statements yesterday urging Clinton not to make a deployment decision because the system has not proved its feasibility.
Focusing on the foreign policy implications, 50 American Nobel laureates sent the president a letter yesterday arguing that "the system would offer little protection and would do grave harm to this nation's core security interests" by igniting an arms race with China and Russia.
The proposed missile shield is a much smaller version of President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars" by critics, a system that was never built and quietly faded once the threat of nuclear war diminished with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interest in missile defense revived after a congressional commission reported in 1998 that North Korea, Iran or Iraq could develop a ballistic missile threat against the United States within five years of deciding to acquire such a capability.
Demanding action from the White House and the Pentagon, a bipartisan majority in Congress enacted legislation last year requiring the creation of a missile shield to cover the 50 states as soon as technically feasible. The administration set a target date of 2005 to have a system operating based on intelligence estimates projecting that North Korea could have a long-range missile capability by then.
While declaring confidence in their ability to create an effective defense eventually, senior Pentagon officials have repeatedly warned that the administration's schedule is highly accelerated and very risky because development and testing of the system will continue even as construction and manufacturing are underway.
"I think one of the things we have to guard against is, if we hit tomorrow night, then there might be a natural tendency for many to throw up their hands and say, 'We did it! It worked just fine,' but such a declaration would be way premature," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, during a news briefing yesterday.
Whether the kill vehicle slams into the target warhead as planned will be evident immediately tonight, but missile defense officials will assess the data from the test for at least two weeks before reporting to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen on the system's readiness.
"We're going to have to take the time in that next couple of weeks to take a real hard look at the data to see which systems performed as we wanted them to and which performed below par, and take a really hard look to be cautious of being overly optimistic as we take a look at what actually happened tomorrow night," Quigley said.
Clinton has said he will consider Cohen's recommendation on the feasibility of the shield, along with input from the State Department and intelligence agencies on the nature of the ballistic missile threat, as well as assessments of the potential foreign policy implications before deciding whether to authorize the first construction work in Alaska. Given the short building season there, the president must give the go-ahead by late November to keep the project on schedule.
Critics contend that tests of the system, including tonight's planned intercept, are unrealistic because only one simple decoy accompanies the target warhead, while any nation capable of launching a long-range ballistic missile would also be capable of much more challenging countermeasures.
"In essence, the Pentagon is asking the wrong question to get the answer they want," said Lisbeth Gronlund, a research fellow in security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Speaking for the Union of Concerned Scientists at a news conference yesterday, Gronlund said, "they have defined the threat to be less than what it might actually be in the real world."