Online NewsHour

August 9, 2000
Building a Defense

In the first of a two-part series, Jeffrey Kaye of KCET, Los Angeles, examines the the question of whether to build a national missile defense system.


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, whether to build a national missile defense for the United States. Here is the first of two reports on that issue by Jeffrey Kaye of KCET, Los Angeles.

SPOKESMAN: Three, two, one, mark...

Missile JEFFREY KAYE: On July 7th, the critical flight test of the planned national missile defense system ended in failure. An interceptor missile that was supposed to destroy a dummy warhead in space failed before it was properly launched.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL RONALD KADISH: We were disappointed with that.

JEFFREY KAYE: At a news briefing, Ronald Kadish, the Air Force lieutenant general in charge of the program, said a booster rocket malfunctioned.

Ronald LIEUTENANT GENERAL RONALD KADISH: What it tells me is that we have more engineering work to do. And as we've said all along, this is a very difficult, challenging job. This is rocket science.

JEFFREY KAYE: This was the fifth flight test in the program, the last one before President Clinton is supposed to decide whether to go ahead with a limited missile defense system, or push the issue to the next administration. The U.S. has been committed to developing a missile defense since March, 1999, when Congress and the President agreed to build a national missile defense system as soon as is technologically feasible.

President ClintonPRESIDENT CLINTON: Whether I would make a decision to go forward with deployment would depend upon four things.

JEFFREY KAYE: The four criteria are: The system's technological feasibility; the nature of the threat; the reaction of other countries, including NATO allies, Russia, and China; and the cost, now estimated at a minimum of $60 billion. There has been vigorous debate on all four issues, in the U.S. and overseas. Animation developed by Boeing and TRW, two of the project's contractors, demonstrates how the system is supposed to work. It is intended to protect the United States against an attack of 20 or fewer missiles. Satellites in orbit would scan for heat generated by a missile launched towards the U.S. Within seconds, the satellites would notify the Battle Management Center located inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado. The center would direct an interception. Radar systems would narrow in on the incoming warhead. Officials would fire off an interceptor missile which carries a so-called "kill vehicle." By using its own navigation, as well as signals from the command center, the kill vehicle would hurtle on a collision course, destroying the warhead by smashing into it above the atmosphere. The immediate decision facing President Clinton is whether to start construction of the x-band radar installation on the remote Alaskan island of Shemya. Missile DefenseThat would be the first step in building the system. Because of treacherous weather conditions there, only by giving the go-ahead now, could the Clinton administration meet its target date of 2005 to have the system operational. And that date is based upon intelligence estimates of when North Korea could have a missile that could reach the United States. Defense Undersecretary Jacques Gansler, is responsible for the Pentagon's acquisitions.

Getting the system to work

MissileJACQUES GANSLER: It is crazy that Shemya has such terrible weather conditions, and yet, it is so perfectly located to be able to track early on these missiles, that you want to put the radar out on that island, but the wind conditions there are normally 30 miles an hour or more, up to over 100 miles an hour in the... in the... as you know, in the winter, it snows, in the summer, it is foggy. You can't bring in barges into the island. It is a really difficult thing... Only a few days you can do construction.

JEFFREY KAYE: And it will take four years?

JACQUES GANSLER: Yeah. And then, of course, you want to evaluate it, and test it to make sure it works.

JEFFREY KAYE: Getting the complex system to work is a huge challenge. So far, engineers have tried only three times to hit a missile in flight. One test succeeded; two failed. The tests used substitute components since the actual interceptor rocket and kill vehicle are months behind schedule. Nonetheless, Gansler says he is confident in the system's overall design.

Jacques GanslerJACQUES GANSLER: We have demonstrated the key elements of the technology where we had a successful intercept. We have had successful tests of the x-band radar, and we have tested most of the other links in the system.

JEFFREY KAYE: But even in the U.S. Defense Department, Gansler's optimism is not fully shared. Philip Coyle oversees the Pentagon's testing programs. He's responsible for making sure the nation's new weapons are properly evaluated. He's issued cautionary reports about the national missile defense program.

PHILIP COYLE, Director, Pentagon Testing: The testing program has been slipping. All of these things have turned out to be more difficult than we thought. Just manufacturing the kill vehicle, preparing for the tests, and achieving success in the tests has taken longer than we thought.

JEFFREY KAYE: So, can you say yet whether the system is technologically feasible?

PHILIP COYLE: Aspects of the program have already shown, been shown to be technologically feasible. We've shown that we can make those radars work. We've shown that we can hit a bullet with a bullet. There are other aspects that we simply haven't even tried yet, let alone demonstrated.

JEFFREY KAYE: So, it's a question mark as to whether it's technologically feasible from your standpoint?


National Missile DefenseJEFFREY KAYE: A huge point of contention is whether the system would be able to discriminate between a real warhead and decoys intended to fool U.S. interceptors.

SPOKESMAN: Medium balloon number one deployed. Medium balloon number two deployed.

JEFFREY KAYE: Initial testing has included crude decoys such as these balloons inflating in space during the first flight test in 1997. Animation by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group opposed to national missile defense, shows that by putting an incoming warhead inside a balloon, the missile, traveling at 17,000 miles an hour, would be hard to pick out. Many decoy balloons would make the task even more complicated.

THEODORE POSTOL: The national missile defense interceptor cannot tell the difference between warheads and the simplest of balloon decoys.

JEFFREY KAYE: Theodore Postol, a physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one in a growing list of critics of the program.

THEODORE POSTOL: This means that the national missile defense system can simply not work.

JEFFREY KAYE: 50 Nobel Prize winners as well as the American Physical Society, which represents 42,000 physicists worldwide, have said the current system has not been proven workable. Ex-military officials including former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, have urged the President to delay deployment of the system until the technology problem is solved. The Pentagon's Philip Coyle also says it is too soon to tell whether the system could distinguish a warhead from a clever disguise.

JEFFREY KAYE: Do you believe that it is feasible... This defense system will be able to discriminate?

Philip CoylePHILIP COYLE: As the decoys become more realistic, it makes the discrimination task more difficult.

JEFFREY KAYE: So, this is a question mark?


Dealing with decoys

JEFFREY KAYE: But according to Gansler, by using a combination of radar and infrared technology, the missile defense system will be able to tell the difference between a warhead and decoys, although he says he can't disclose what the system can and cannot do.

Jacques GanslerJACQUES GANSLER: If I told you all of that information, then obviously anybody could then design something that would be the one thing that we hadn't addressed, or that doesn't fit, or that we couldn't discriminate, and so that is the reason all that information is very highly classified.

JEFFREY KAYE: Besides the question of whether the system will be effective against a missile attack, there is also debate over another of the President's criteria, the nature of the threat. U.S. policy makers say North Korea poses the major danger. A North Korean missile launch two years ago, and a report from a special commission prompted an administration reassessment of the threat. Last January, Defense Secretary William Cohen said the administration had reversed its position, and would support deployment of a missile defense system.

William CohenWILLIAM COHEN: We are committing additional billions of dollars, and taking other steps to protect our troops and the American people from the growing threat posed by weapons of mass destruction delivered by ballistic missiles.

JEFFREY KAYE: Top administration officials say a missile threat could also come from Iraq, and from Iran, which receives help from North Korea. Both nations are developing missiles that could threaten the United States, say officials. There is also concern about an accidental launch from Russia.

JACQUES GANSLER: The chances of that happening and destroying large American populations is not zero, and if it's not... if it is significant at all, then it is our responsibility to be concerned about that.

JEFFREY KAYE: Could you lay out the scenario under which North Korea might or would shoot a missile at the United States?

JACQUES GANSLER: Well, I would start out by not wanting to pick any one country for this overall concept. The concept here is that a country, a regional power, chooses, for one reason or another... gets involved in a conflict, but chooses to try to keep the United States out of that conflict by saying, "if you come in, we will threaten your cities," and if we have no means of preventing that, then that threat is a credible threat. If we have a means of preventing it, we can deter that threat.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gansler says nations such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran are irrational and unpredictable.

Jacques GanslerJACQUES GANSLER: Some of the behavior of some of the leaders in some of these countries doesn't follow the same rationale that we do -- the logic of behavior-- and especially when pressed, you know, when up against the wall and threatened may behave in a sort of an irrational fashion.

Rogue states a threat?

JOHN PIKE: This rogue state threat, I think, is basically made up.

JEFFREY KAYE: John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists contends the North Korean threat and capability have been overstated.

John PikeJOHN PIKE, Federation of American Scientists: Some people say that the problem is that North Korea is so irrational that they might fire a nuclear missile at the United States, even though we would blow them up about a half- an-hour later. I don't think that they're that crazy.

JEFFREY KAYE: Pike commissioned these satellite photographs of North Korea's missile test facility. He says they show North Korea's missile development program is rudimentary, and does not warrant building a defense against it.

JOHN PIKE: North Korea has only conducted a couple of tests and has built the facilities that you'd need if you are only going to test every couple of years.

JEFFREY KAYE: You have called this a bare-bones facility. Why?

JOHN PIKE: Well, there is surprisingly little here, apart from one launch pad, one building that you could store a couple of missiles in and an area where you could do the countdown and follow the launch. There is basically nothing else there.

Korean LeadersJEFFREY KAYE: John Pike and other analysts say the dramatic summit between the two Koreas in June lessened the chances of the U.S. being dragged into a war between them. Pike points out that North Korea has declared a moratorium on missile testing, and has offered to close down its missile program in exchange for compensation from the U.S., but administration officials say continued wariness is justified.

WILLIAM COHEN: One summit doesn't change a tiger into a domestic cat. We have to, in fact, see whether or not the North Koreans are going to continue to follow through with their relationship with the South. Just earlier we had the top negotiator of the North Koreans saying that the production and development of ICBMs is something that is a sovereign right, and they intend to continue to develop it.

JEFFREY KAYE: As for Iraq, Saddam Hussein's long range missile capabilities have been overstated, according to John Pike, and he believes Iran is more rational than U.S. military planners think.

John PikeJOHN PIKE: The reality is that the Iranian leadership has demonstrated profound rationality in looking at the suffering of their own people. The casualties that they were prepared to suffer during the war with Iraq back in the 1980s, only a very small percentage as a percentage of population of those that supposedly rational countries like France, or Britain, or Germany suffered during the First World War. So I see no indication of irrationality on the part of the Iranian leadership, no indication that Shiite appetite for martyrdom would predispose them to seeing their whole country vaporized, as we surely would do if they were to attack us with missiles.

JEFFREY KAYE: But of all the potential threats, it is North Korea's capability that is driving the Clinton administration's timetable for getting the Alaska radar system built by 2005. Beyond that, under the current plan, the rest of the system will be deployed over the next five years under a schedule to be determined by the next administration.

JIM LEHRER: Two days ago, Secretary Cohen said he was delaying a further recommendation to the President for at least several weeks; he said a number of difficult issues remain to be resolved.

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