When President Clinton said last month he would not order deployment of a national missile defense the reason he gave was that the technology is not yet ready. Vice President Al Gore also has used the technology readiness argument, while making it clear his top priority is to preserve the ABM treaty.
The claim the technology is not ready is an old one. For years, missile defense opponents have been saying it is premature to deploy defenses because the technology is not perfect. Last Saturday, that argument was shot down over the White Sands missile test range by the Army’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptor, which now has made six intercepts in a row.
The effort to develop a defense against tactical ballistic missiles goes back 40 years to 1960, when the Army intercepted a ballistic rocket with a Hawk missile. There followed years of research and development amid a general disbelief that ballistic missiles, then not very accurate, were a serious threat to forces in the field. Development of the original Patriot began around 1978 as an interceptor of both aircraft and missiles.
Its anti-missile capability was subsequently dropped to cut costs and avoid any conflict with the ABM treaty. But as the Soviets developed their highly accurate SS-21 tactical missile and SA-12 missile interceptor, the need for a U.S. missile interceptor could no longer be avoided. Despite persistent worries about ABM treaty restrictions, it was decided in the 1980s to improve Patriot so it could hit fast-moving missile warheads.
Patriot was a successful aircraft interceptor. Hundreds were deployed with U.S. forces, NATO, and other U.S. allies. The program to upgrade it was designated PAC-2. This new PAC-2 interceptor had just gone into initial production when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Production went on a 24-hour basis and every available unit was sent to the Middle East.
The rest is history. Saddam Hussein fired 88 Scuds at Saudi Arabia and Israel, trying to kill Americans and turn the conflict into a holy war against Israel. Patriots hit most of the Scuds and prevented expansion of the war. But their fragmentation warheads were not always effective, leaving some missile warheads to land and explode. There also was concern about chemical weapons that could spread their contents even if hit. Patriot had to be improved.
After reviewing the options it was decided the best solution was hit-to-kill, which uses advanced sensors and computers to “hit a bullet with a bullet.” When the target warhead is struck at very high speed it is destroyed in a fireball that burns up its contents, whether chemical, biological, nuclear or high explosive. Hit-to-kill solves the problem. The Army team developing PAC-3 has achieved a major success. The program began in 1994 and initial deployment is planned in 2001. Over the past 19 months, PAC-3 has been tested four times against ballistic missiles and twice against cruise missiles. All six intercepts have been spectacularly successful. In last week’s test, PAC-2 and PAC-3 interceptors were fired simultaneously against different targets, showing how they will work together on the battlefield as part of a combined defensive system.
The Army wants to buy 2,200 PAC-3s, but budget limitations have cut its plans to just 560. With turmoil in the Middle East and threats in the Far East, analysts say the Army needs at least 1,200 PAC-3s to defend its forces worldwide. Patriot also is popular with the allies. PAC-2s have been sold to or deployed in 10 countries and at least eight are interested in buying PAC-3s. The next president should acknowledge the success of this missile defense program and order the production of more PAC-3s in the budget supplemental he submits next spring.
The fantastic success of hit-to-kill technology demonstrated by PAC-3 is directly relevant to a national missile defense, since a similar warhead is the key technology for that program. The Patriot success also shows the way to develop new weapons. The original Patriot was developed decades ago to defend against airplanes. Then its PAC-2 modification came just in time to defend against the Scuds of Desert Storm. After that, PAC-2 was modified with better guidance and other improvements. And now a new PAC-3 with greatly improved capabilities is ready for deployment.
Development of a national missile defense should proceed the same way. The initial ground-based system, which can be deployed the quickest, should be fielded as soon as possible, with sea-based and other components added when they are ready. Then changes and improvements can be made over the years to keep pace with the threat.
President Clinton was wrong when he said national missile defense technology is not yet ready. The Patriot PAC-3 success shows the key technology is ready. The next president should correct that decision.