- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

It is not easy to hit a missile warhead streaking through space at 24,000 feet per second some 144 miles above the Earth, but that is what the National Missile Defense (NMD) program tried to do early last Saturday morning. The attempt failed, but it was not a failure of the key hit-to-kill technology. The Pentagon says the problem was a failure of the kill vehicle to separate from the booster rocket.

That is a mechanical problem that should be relatively easy to fix. The basic design is solid, and the technology works. This was the third intercept attempt. The first was a smashing success, literally, as the interceptor smashed into the target warhead and turned it into a ball of flame. The second was a near miss that occurred when a cooling system leak caused the infrared seeker to overheat and miss the target by a few hundred feet. Now, the third test has found another problem to be identified and fixed.

That is what flight tests are for, to find out what may not work and fix it. But the core hit-to-kill technology was demonstrated conclusively last year in six successful intercepts. Five were made by the new shorter-range theater missile defenses that also are under development, but the key technology is the same.

In every one of those hits the interceptor struck the "sweet spot" on the target a spot the size of a basketball on the 13-foot NMD target and even smaller on the shorter-range missiles. This is rocket science and it takes years of effort and multiple tests to get it right. Ideally, flight tests should be conducted in private until all the bugs are worked out, but the NMD program is so high-profile that each flight test is a major media event.

The pressure to hit the target every time is tremendous. But Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, says hitting the target is only one of many criteria for deciding whether to deploy the system. His team, he says, also is watching "about 999 other criteria very closely," and will analyze the operation of all systems to determine which test objectives were met and which were not.

Gen. Kadish has said the one successful intercept already completed is enough proof the technology works to justify continuing development and testing, and to award contracts to begin construction of a radar at Shemya Island in the Aleutians. The need for missile defense will not go away just because NMD opponents wish it. Just more than a week ago U.S. intelligence agencies reported China is continuing to export missile parts and technology to Pakistan despite repeated denials.

And last week it was revealed that Iraq conducted the eighth flight test of its al-Samoud ballistic missile, showing despite the U.N. embargo Baghdad has restored its ability to develop and produce missiles. While the al-Samoud is a short-range missile, in 1989 Iraq fired a Tamouz-1 rocket that launched an object into space, demonstrating a long-range missile capability. Experts agree that if the U.N. sanctions are lifted Iraq will quickly develop a new long-range missile, since Baghdad already has the knowledge and experience to do so.

Perhaps more ominous are the steps being taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin to solidify his new strategic partnership with Beijing by selling Russia's most advanced military equipment to China. Last week, Moscow announced the sale to China of two more Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with supersonic anti-ship missiles, for a total of four, which will increase the threat to Taiwan and the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Missile defenses are needed for both Taiwan and the U.S. to counter Beijing's threats of war and neutralize China's buildup of ballistic missiles. In Korea, despite the recent meeting of the two leaders, intelligence reports show North Korea is keeping its army in forward positions and continuing work on its long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile.

As the Rumsfeld Commission pointed out two years ago, the threat is "evolving rapidly" and "the U.S. might well have little or no warning before the operational deployment" of new ballistic missiles. This growing threat requires an aggressive program to get defenses operational at an early date. A great deal is learned from each flight test, which is then applied to perfect the system. What needs to be done now is to continue the effort, start the initial construction in Alaska, and move on to more flight tests as soon as possible.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.

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