- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Saturday's spectacular intercept of a ballistic missile high over the Pacific Ocean was a decisive answer to critics who say the planned national missile defense won't work.

After traveling thousands of miles, the dummy warhead was obliterated by a direct hit at a closing speed of some 4.5 miles per second by an interceptor launched from Kwajalein Atoll.

This duplicated the results of the first test of the midcourse missile defense in October 1999, which critics said was a "lucky hit." Some luck.

At those speeds and distances luck has little to do with it it is brilliant engineering enhanced by modern high-speed computers and sophisticated sensors. The technology that makes this possible, known as "hit-to-kill," is without parallel in the world today. The next step is to move this technology into production and get it deployed as soon as possible.

When President Reagan made his SDI speech 18 years ago, hit-to-kill technology was being developed, but it had not yet been proven. It first hit a simulated warhead in a 1984 flight test called the Homing Overlay Experiment. Since then, hit-to-kill technology has been tested extensively on the ground and in simulations that have proven its viability as a non-nuclear missile defense.

Most of the earlier-missed intercepts in tests of both long- and short-range interceptors were caused by mechanical failures, not failures of the key hit-to-kill technology. These routine quality-control problems have since been corrected. But because they caused flight tests to miss their targets, missile defense opponents seized the opportunity to claim that the technology is not ready.

Yet, when the whole weapon system works properly, as it did on Saturday, hit-to-kill devices have had a success rate of 87.5 percent, according to missile defense pioneer Bill Davis, who reviewed the results of 31 flight tests. Nearly all components of the hit-to-kill technology have been tested and proven ready for production and deployment.

The main remaining work is to complete development and testing of a booster rocket to carry the kill device, and to assure that all parts of a missile defense are completely integrated so that the interceptor, sensors, communications, and command and control elements work together consistently.

Future quality-control problems can best be identified and solved through extensive ground- and flight-testing of production hardware. But to test production hardware it is necessary to start producing it.

Missile defense opponents want to conduct research indefinitely, without producing or deploying anything. They claim a national defense always can be rushed to deployment in a crisis. But it can't. The Rumsfeld Commission pointed out three years ago that the threat is here now and can get worse in a hurry. The U.S., the commission wrote, "might have little or no warning before operational deployment" of long-range missiles by rogue regimes.

Threats can emerge unexpectedly as weapons are developed in secret or transferred from other countries. Subsequent developments in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran have validated that view.

In contrast, it will take at least four or five years to deploy even a modest nationwide missile defense. The greatest delay is the time needed to build the infrastructure: launch facilities, large land-based radars and other sensors, communications networks, and the integration of command-and-control hardware and software. Construction in harsh climates can cause extra delays. Building these infrastructure items that take years should be started now.

The Pentagon soon will begin clearing land at Fort Greely, Alaska, to build the first five silos for midcourse missile interceptors, which will be stored there and used for an accelerated program of flight tests from the new launch facility on Kodiak Island, Alaska. This will get that essential long-lead construction under way.

The administration now is ready to move beyond the ABM treaty not only to deploy land-based defenses in Alaska, but also to develop sea-based, air-based and space-based systems to produce a layered defense that will be effective against an accidental or unauthorized launch, missile blackmail or intimidation, and attacks by rogue states.

Saturday's successful intercept shows once again that the advanced hit-to-kill technology works. It is time to move it into production, test it extensively, get construction under way, and build the initial site to begin defending the nation.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego. Don Tingle is a missile systems analyst with Davidson Enterprises, Huntsville, Ala.

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