After twenty years of talk about whether and how to defend the country against ballistic missiles, President Bush has made the long-awaited decision to deploy such defenses, directing the placement of 10 interceptors in Alaska and Californiain 2004, 10 more in 2005, and 20 on Aegis ships. The deployment decision, which President Clinton refused to make two years ago, came despite a miss in a missile defense test last week, showing the administration’s confidence in the effectiveness of the system.
Last weekthe Missile Defense Agency conducted IFT-10, the 10th flight test of the interceptor being developed for a national missile defense. It was the eighth attempt at an intercept and the third failure. But while the test failed, it was not a miss. Since the kill vehicle did not separate from the rocket booster, there was no intercept attempt. When there is an attempt, the key hit-to-kill technology works well, as the five successful intercepts show.
The three failures, including the one last week, stemmed from low-tech, quality-control problems that are easily fixed. One was a clogged cooling pipe, while another was a failure to transmit data, although the same equipment had worked fine for years on Minuteman missiles. In the most recent test, early indications are that a loose wire may have prevented the signal needed to fire the mechanism that separates the kill vehicle from the booster rocket.
Nevertheless, all other elements of the missile defense system appear to have worked well. It was what the Pentagon calls an integrated system test that included the use of satellite-based missile warning, ground-based early warning radar, the new X-band radar at Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, and the battle management facilities at Kwajalein and Colorado Springs.
The SPY-1 radar of an Aegis cruiser, the USS Lake Erie, also successfully tracked the target missile. And in this test there was a new element the Boeing 747 being outfitted as the first airborne-laser system succeeded in locating and tracking the target missile in the boost phase of its flight with what a senior defense official described as spectacular results.
The test used radars and other sensors at multiple locations on the ground, in space, in the air and on ships at sea. Much of this was banned by the ABM treaty, which had made such a test impossible. The treaty prohibited using either the ship-based Aegis radar or the airborne laser’s sensors to support a defense of the nation. Only now, in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, can all these capabilities be brought together in a rational and cost-effective way.
This use of multiple sensors in various locations makes it easier to track the target missile and deal with possible countermeasures. The additional data produced through triangulation of the target and long-range tracking can assist the interceptor’s on-board sensors in distinguishing the warhead from balloons and other penetration aids.
Mr. Bush gave notice of withdrawal from the ABM treaty a year ago, and it went out of existence just six months ago.In that short time, substantial progress has been made in pulling together all the elements of an effective national defense, including those previously banned. The combination of treaty withdrawal and four straight successful intercepts has allowed the Missile Defense Agency to accelerate its flight test goals by as much as two years.
Two new booster rockets are in development and soon will undergo flight-testing. One or both will be used in future intercept tests, beginning late next year. The purpose of flight tests is to discover problems and fix them, and with each fix a greater degree of reliability is achieved. As the program progresses, its growing capabilities will deter potential adversaries from launching missiles or using them for blackmail.
That is what the missile defense effort is all about making opponents think twice before launching missiles at this country, its allies or its forces overseas. What ruler with a few nuclear weapons is going to risk them on unreliable missiles against a combined land, sea, air and space defense? In the long run, missile defenses will diminish the value of ballistic missiles and perhaps nuclear weapons as well. The great value of ballistic missileshas been the lack of effective defenses against them. But that situation is changing, and missile defenses are becoming increasingly popular.
Britain and Japan are showing new interest in joining the United States in developing missile defenses and even the Canadian government, which has been cool to the idea, may be changing its tune. Most of our allies in the Middle East and Northeast Asia already have defenses against short- and medium-range missiles, or are asking for them. Despite occasional setbacks, the program to develop and deploy a national missile defense remains on track. The president’s decision now assures that the initial defenses will be in place in less than two years.