- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2000

It is more than a month since Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed some sort of cooperation with the West against emerging long-range missile threats, but so far Moscow has provided few details. It looks like no more than a clever ploy by the former KGB officer to divide the West and block a U.S. national missile defense (NMD).

On June 5, right after he told President Clinton he agreed there was an emerging missile threat but would not agree to change the ABM Treaty, President Putin and other Russian officials traveled to a number of European capitals selling the idea that a "boost phase" defense could protect Europe against missiles.

In peddling this snake oil, Mr. Putin is trying to divide the U.S. from its NATO allies, kill the NMD program, prevent changes in the ABM treaty, create new solidarity with Europe's socialists, and sell Russian surface-to-air missiles. The proposal is vague, but apparently involves deploying short-range interceptors near the missile sites of countries that might be considered threats. Who that would be is unclear, since such countries as North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya are Russia's friends and trading partners.

What is clear is that the short-range interceptors would not be close to any long-range missiles, which are based far from national borders. It looks more like a plan to protect Russian and Chinese missiles from U.S. defenses than to protect Europe. Mr. Putin's plan is essentially the same as a proposal promoted by arms control advocate Richard Garwin and more recently by Theodore Postol, head of an anti-defense group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Once again, Moscow is echoing the ideas of U.S. arms control activists.

The boost phase intercept idea is intriguing, but also challenging. As Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute wrote in The Washington Times on July 17, intercepting a missile in the boost phase is not as easy as some believe. It is true a missile is most vulnerable when moving slowly right after launch. An Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is in the boost phase for the first 120 to 210 seconds after blastoff, while rapidly accelerating to more than 7 kilometers a second (kms).

Most existing theater missile interceptors travel from 1.5 to 2.5 kms. Some new ones will be faster, probably including Russia's two new interceptors, the S-400 and S-500. But the Clinton administration stated ina 1997 ABM treaty amendment that still has not been submitted to the Senate for consideration that it had no plans to develop a sea-based interceptor faster than 4.5 kms or a land-based one faster than 5.5 kms. To be effective, a boost phase system may well need a faster interceptor.

An ICBM can be hit in that first 120-210 seconds only if a very high-speed interceptor is located close enough, probably within 150 miles of the launch, which is unlikely in most places. It also requires space-based sensors and long-range radars to detect the launch and track the target, perfect communications, and the ability to fire almost simultaneously with the launch. A boost phase intercept requires a complete cycle of action in less than one minute. The timelines are so short, says Defense Undersecretary Jacques Gansler, that humans cannot be in the loop.

These boost phase difficulties are solved by a midcourse defense of the kind planned under the NMD program. An ICBM takes some 30 minutes to reach its target, allowing time for the combination of long-range radars and space-based sensors being developed for NMD to detect the launch, track its course, decide if it is a space launch rocket or missile, figure the impact point, identify the warhead, and conduct an intercept. NMD interceptors will have time to conduct their intercepts far from U.S. soil.

In many cases there will be time to shoot, check the results, and shoot again if necessary. And discriminating warheads from decoys is not as difficult as critics claim. The Pentagon's Mr. Gansler says those who say the system cannot distinguish missiles from decoys do not have access to classified information that shows it can. Even public information on the 1998 flight test of the Raytheon kill vehicle that is the key component of the NMD interceptor shows that it selected the warhead from among eight decoys of different kinds, including just about everything a developing country could do.

Boost phase defense has been oversold, and the type proposed by Mr. Putin would not even protect against an accidental or unauthorized launch of a Russian or Chinese missile, an important goal of any defensive system. Still, we must keep trying to find out if Mr. Putin has any new ideas, and to seek his cooperation in moving away from nuclear missiles and toward the security of missile defenses. But meanwhile, we should get on with the current NMD program.

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

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