A top-secret flight center on the tawny plains east of the Rockies
has become a preferred destination for military commanders who want to
learn how to launch missiles capable of blasting enemy warheads from the
The sleek computer workstations of the National Test Flight Center
command post are not actually connected to real interceptors--because
none have been designed yet. Nor have test flights yet proved that any
missile will ever be able to knock down another.
Yet the confidence in this successor to Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars"
program is so high that the military's senior missile and air-defense
officials now personally sit in on annual war games that they were long
content to ignore.
The sudden popularity of the Joint National Test Facility at Falcon
Air Force Base illustrates the curious status of the Pentagon's most
expensive and controversial research effort: While 16 years of work and
$60 billion in spending have not demonstrated that the concept is
workable, the National Missile Defense program appears remarkably close
Last week, Congress passed legislation declaring that it is now
national policy to deploy such a system. Although the move does not
irrevocably commit the administration, it carries a heavy symbolic weight
and raises the political pressure for deployment.
President Clinton, who disparaged the concept as "unproved" and
"ineffective" three years ago, asked Congress in January for an
additional $6.6 billion to possibly deploy a system by 2005.
In addition, political pressure is being applied by defense
contractors working on the project. The contractors make up a network
that stretches from Massachusetts to California.
The project's improving prospects have alarmed the Russians and
Chinese, who fear that it could further tip the global balance of power
in Washington's favor.
Critics fear that it could unravel critical arms control agreements,
notably the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. Even worse, they say,
it could cause the United States to spend billions of dollars on a
futuristic system that enemies could overwhelm or simply circumvent.
Yet even the critics acknowledge that the moves toward missile defense
may have already gone so far that there is no turning back. They note
that big defense programs are rarely canceled once Congress and
contractors are on board.
"They can't get it to work, but the political momentum is probably
irresistible," said John Pike, a space specialist with the Federation of
American Scientists and a longtime critic of the program.
Perceived Threat From Smaller Nations
The administration has taken a giant step toward missile defense
because of the perceived threat posed by smaller nations and the risk of
an accidental or unauthorized launch from the vast but decrepit Russian
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States scaled back
Reagan's ambitious plan for a system that would enable space-based lasers
or electromagnetic "cannons" to blow up hundreds of incoming Soviet
intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Replacing that $36-billion effort was a research program designed to
defend the United States against an attack by a few ICBMs launched by a
smaller country, such as Iran or North Korea.
But the administration's confidence was jarred last year as Iran
tested an intermediate-range missile and North Korea launched a
three-stage rocket capable of striking Alaska and Hawaii. That confidence
was further shaken when a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that "rogue" countries could soon
have missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland--without the United
States' even knowing it.
As a result, administration officials began declaring a new interest
in the program, based on a conviction that the threat might be only two
years away, not 14 years, as they had previously said.
Officials had previously stressed that missile defense would get the
go-ahead only if it was found to be militarily necessary, economical and
technically workable and if it did not undermine arms control treaties.
Now, they say technical viability is the "primary" criterion.
"There is a threat, and the threat is growing, and we expect it to
pose a danger not only to our troops overseas but also to Americans here
at home," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said in January.
U.S. defense officials believe that the ballistic missile will be the
military tool of choice for small and medium-sized powers for the next 50
years at least.
Missiles cost far less than a fully equipped air force. Yet they are
capable of wreaking destruction in the homeland of a superpower with
top-notch air defenses--all in a matter of 30 minutes or less.
Although the risk of massive retaliation should dissuade any overseas
power from lobbing a missile at the U.S., American defense officials
don't assume that all foreign leaders will always act logically.
Defense officials have planned for years, for example, against what
they view as a real possibility that the tottering regime of North Korea
could "lash out" at U.S. and South Korean forces as a last desperate act
"We don't think you can put all your money on an assumption of
rationality," a senior U.S. official said.
Pentagon's Biggest Research Effort
For that reason, the Pentagon has made missile defense its biggest
research effort, spending nearly $4 billion a year to develop rockets,
radar, heat-detecting sensors and even more futuristic technologies--such
as laser weapons--to protect U.S. troops abroad and civilians at home.
Current missile-shield plans call for 20 interceptor missiles planted
in silos at a "launch farm" possibly in North Dakota or Alaska.
A U.S. satellite would spot the heat from enemy missiles. Using data
from radar and sensors, a U.S. interceptor missile would blast off toward
an enemy weapon, shedding fuel-carrying booster stages until only the
compact, 100-pound "kill vehicle" remained.
The vehicle would maneuver into the path of the enemy warhead for a
collision--at more than 10,000 mph--that would blow the two to
Can "a bullet hit a bullet" in this way?
Since Reagan announced the original "Star Wars" program in 1983,
answers to this question have been based as much on political ideology as
Clearly, researchers have made considerable progress. Both the
powerful radar and the kill vehicles have made strides in their ability
to track warheads and distinguish them from nearby objects.
This month, the Army demonstrated for the first time in a flight test
that the "hit-to-kill" system that would allow the kill vehicle to bash
the threatening missile can be made to work.
These advances stirred real optimism at Boeing, the lead contractor.
"We have achieved a major breakthrough on the kill vehicle," Boeing
Vice President John Peller said. "The challenge now is to pull it all
into an integrated system."
Senior administration officials, who have been scalded by bad public
relations stemming from delays and foul-ups, are far more cautious.
"The program has still not hit anything," one top program official
The program has received a black eye from the failures of a related
program, the Army's smaller-scale Theater High Altitude Area Defense
system. This program, which aims to protect troops within a battle
theater of several hundred miles, has failed to strike a target in five
Enemy Debris Seen by Some as Fatal Flaw
Some critics see a fatal flaw in the difficulties the kill vehicle
would face picking out enemy warheads from a huge cloud of decoys and
debris that enemy missiles might disgorge.
These decoys might include World War II-style metal chaff, or nails,
or metallic-coated balloons shaped like warheads and designed to mimic
the radar and heat characteristics of enemy projectiles.
One clear setback for the program came in February.
The Air Force, after delays and overruns, unexpectedly canceled $800
million worth of contracts with TRW and Boeing to develop a new
generation of satellites with heat-detecting sensors.
These Space-Based Infrared Sensor satellites are considered key to the
missile shield because of their ability to locate enemy missiles quickly
after launch and to pick out warheads from a cloud of decoys in space.
Cancellation of the contracts for the 24-satellite system has
indefinitely delayed a project designed to give the missile-defense
shield a far greater ability to distinguish warheads from decoys. The
project would also have provided data on enemy missiles much sooner,
giving American interceptors an earlier launch time and therefore a
better chance of success.
Also still unresolved is the question of whether the system could miss
some missiles aimed at targets on the edge of the continent--such as in
Doubts Surround Reach of System
If the system is based in North Dakota, as the 1972 ABM treaty now
provides, it might do a good job of protecting Fargo.
However, it might be far less effective protecting California because
the greater distances involved would make the task of accurately tracking
and killing enemy missiles more difficult, defense officials acknowledge.
Hawaii and Alaska, already in the range of the North Korean Taepodong
1 missile, would be even more vulnerable.
Many analysts believe that the government will end up choosing sites
in Alaska, where the system would be best able to handle missiles from
North Korea, currently Washington's greatest worry.
Despite such questions, the political winds appear to be blowing
strongly with those who want to deploy sooner rather than later.
Congressional Republicans, who have added hundreds of millions of
dollars annually to the budget for missile defense, have made it a top
priority as they prepare for the 2000 elections.
The new fears about the threat of missiles also appear to be drawing
some Democrats into the pro-deployment camp.
The administration's recent steps toward missile defense--including
Clinton's decision not to fight the legislation declaring deployment to
be national policy--were prompted in part by a desire to deprive the
Republicans of an issue they could use against Democrats, including
presidential aspirant Al Gore, one U.S. official acknowledged.
Any move toward deployment must deal with the landmark 1972
Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which limits defenses to a maximum of 100
missiles at a single site.
U.S. officials say they are confident, despite loud Russian
objections, that they can get the Russians to agree to changes that would
better protect both sides from small-scale missile attack.
In any case, U.S. officials say that Russia can't veto the project and
that if the Russians don't approve, the United States is prepared to go
it alone. Assuming the U.S. does proceed on its own, the technical
questions are the only real remaining hurdles.
Some critics fear that the system could be deployed even without real
proof that it works--as happened in 1975 with the United States' first
That system, Safeguard, was shut down within four months when it
became clear that it would not do its job.
360 Southlanders Are Employed on Program
The National Missile Defense program now has about 1,700 people
working for defense contractors. These include about 360 people in
Southern California at Boeing's operations in Anaheim and Carson, at
Logicon in San Pedro and Anaheim, and at Xontech in Huntington Beach.
The limited system now envisioned would cost $28 billion over its
lifetime. However, defense officials are mapping contingency plans for
even larger systems, which--with expensive space-based components--could
add $60 billion to the price tag.
Critics fear that if a limited system is deployed and appears to work,
political pressure will quickly build for a bigger system.
Already, the strong advocates of missile defense "don't want a limited
system," said arms control specialist Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "They want a lot more.
That's what's got these contractors salivating."
* * *
How It Would Work
The National Missile Defense program, now under development, would
rely on 20 interceptor missiles planted in underground silos on a "launch
farm." If an intercontinental ballistic missile was launched at the
United States, these interceptor missiles would blow the incoming
warheads out of the sky.
1. Infrared sensor in space spots huge heat emissions from launch of
enemy missile. It sounds alarm.
2. Early warning radar in Greenland and elsewhere report data on
3. More-sophisticated X-band tracking radar is cued. It sends more
detailed information on missile's location to command center.
4. Within minutes, before warheads reenter atmosphere, U.S.
interceptor missile blasts off.
5. Using radar data, interceptor vehicle maneuvers into position, then
collides with enemy missile at 10,000 mph.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved