Will a national missile defense system work?

Will a national missile defense system work?


There is something the Defense Department may not want the public to know about its National Missile Defense system, contend a contingent of Democratic lawmakers, who say the program has severe technological deficiencies.

During his recent trip to Europe, President Bush made it clear to U.S. allies that he intends to push ahead on his plans for a system that can intercept missiles.
The $43.5 billion program has the backing of President Bush, key Republican lawmakers and the Defense's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). But testing by DOD's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation found a malfunction in the command and control system that misinterpreted some radar signals as incoming missiles.

In an 80-page study last summer, Phil Coyle, the former director of OT&E and currently a senior adviser with the Center for Defense Information, an independent military research organization in Washington, warned that such a misinterpretation of signals could cause interceptor launches at nonexistent projectiles.

'The system may be unable to discriminate between an incoming missile and a phantom radar track and may launch interceptors against a threat that does not exist,' Coyle said in his report.

Wait a second

But the technology has improved since the OT&E tests, missile defense officials countered.
Coyle ran simulated tests on an older, flawed version of the system, said Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, a BMDO spokesman.

Two months ago, Boeing Co. delivered an improved simulation module for the system that will undergo flight testing in August, Lehner said.

'Over time, we have had flawed products, but they've all been fixed,' he said. 'Boeing had numerous instances when they had to produce something quicker than normal. Sometimes they were slow and behind schedule, but they did everything they were supposed to do.'

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. contends that the debate over missile defense is taking attention away from a more probable risk to Americans: terrorist attacks.
In December, the department awarded a seven-year contract to Boeing to continue its work developing the missile defense system.

The contract gives DOD the option of deploying the system at any time.

But DOD's explanation of the test failure has not appeased some members of Congress who have demanded to know why the department refuses to release Coyle's study if system deficiencies have been corrected.

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) said a Pentagon lawyer instructed him and other lawmakers to keep the study confidential.

'They've got an obligation to put it out,' Tierney said in a June 12 letter he sent to Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and other members of the House Committee on Government Reform. 'I am concerned that the department may have requested confidentiality simply to keep this information hidden from public view because it reveals critical flaws in the missile defense program.'

But a Defense official cited sections of Coyle's report that are sensitive and proprietary as the reason DOD has not released the study. She said Defense officials have no plans to make the report public.

'There is a tremendous amount of politics involved in this issue,' the Defense official said. 'The department is trying to accommodate [lawmakers] as best we can.'

The current family of missile defense systems

' Airborne Laser is a developmental program to install a chemical laser in a 747 that would be capable of shooting down ballistic missiles during their boost phase. Fiscal 2001 appropriation: $234 million plus $153 million in the recent supplemental request.

' Medium Extended Air Defense System is a highly mobile weapon being developed with help from Germany and Italy to provide limited-area protection. The three countries are sharing the development costs; the United States is contributing 60 percent, Germany 25 percent and Italy 15 percent. Fiscal 2001 appropriation: $53 million.

' National Missile Defense is designed to defend all 50 states against a small attack. The system includes ground-based interceptors, early-warning and tracking radars, space-based cueing and tracking sensors and a battle management system. Fiscal 2001 appropriation: $2 billion.

' Navy Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense homes in on targets with an infrared seeker and intercepts them with a missile at altitudes below 25 kilometers. The system uses radar systems on Aegis cruisers and destroyers. Fiscal 2001 appropriation: $274 million.

' Navy Theater-Wide Ballistic Missile Defense intercepts missiles at altitudes above 100 kilometers using infrared homing and Aegis sea-based radar to guide the inter-
ceptor missiles. Fiscal 2001 appropriation: $462 million.

' Patriot Advanced Capability 3 is designed to intercept missiles at altitudes below 25 kilometers, acquiring its targets using a radio-frequency seeker. Fiscal 2001 appropriation: $446 million.

' Theater High-Altitude Area Defense targets missiles at altitudes above 40 kilometers. THAAD is a ground-based system using infrared terminal guidance for interceptor missiles. Fiscal 2001 appropriation: $550 million.

' Space-based Laser is a program to develop a low-Earth-orbit laser that would attack a missile in the boost phase. Fiscal 2001 appropriation: $147 million.

The recent debate over the system illustrates the bickering between DOD and many Democratic lawmakers over whether the United States should support a missile defense program. Some say the price tag, which estimates earmark at between $100 billion and $250 billion after factoring in other major missile systems, is too hefty to pay when there are questions on the feasibility and logic of developing such a system in the post-Cold War era.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said he blames the controversy on misleading information that has been circulated by people who claim the United States is not threatened by attacks from rogue nations such as North Korea and Libya.

A necessary step

At a June 14 hearing of the House Armed Forces Subcommittee on Military R&D, Weldon argued for building the system.

'When you lay out the facts, I think everyone understands the need to move forward,' Weldon said.

He pointed out that in the mid-1990s, the United States caught Russia transferring weapons to Iraq three times. Weldon said the United States has also caught China passing highly explosive weapons and technology to other countries that could pose a threat.

In a recent trip to Europe, President Bush was clear in talks with allies that the United States plans to implement a missile defense system by 2004.

Bush also discussed the need to move beyond the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

'The ABM treaty is a relic of the past,' the president said. 'It prevents freedom-loving people from exploring the future, and that's why we've got to lay it aside.'

One area of missile defense that is receiving good marks in test results is the Patriot Advanced Capability 3. PAC-3, a theater-based system, is a high-velocity missile being developed to defend against advanced tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and hostile aircraft.

The PAC-3 missiles use kinetic energy rather than explosive warheads to destroy targets.
Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, BMDO's director, said PAC-3 would have been capable of catching the Scud missile that killed 28 soldiers and wounded 99 others in Dhahran, Saudia Arabia, during the Gulf War in 1991.

During the House subcommittee hearing, Kadish outlined the PAC-3 system and several others in the family of missile defense systems being developed by BMDO, including the Army's Theater High-Altitude Area Defense, the Navy Theater-Wide Ballistic Missile Defense and the Medium Extended Air Defense System.

'We are testing missile defense. We cannot expect our intercept attempts to always succeed, but we can improve our chances,' Kadish said. 'We need different missile defense capabilities. We need to have a more robust test infrastructure as we go forward.'

Kadish said PAC-3 had a 100 percent success rate in its last eight tests.

But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that all of the attention on missile defense is taking attention away from a more probable and realistic threat to American citizens: terrorist attacks.

Citing a finding by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Biden said: 'An attack on the United States using strategic missiles would be terribly harmful. But it is also the least likely threat to our national security. More realistic threats include regional conflicts, major theater wars, and terrorist attacks at home or abroad.'


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