Two years after the demise of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the United States has put into place a limited system to defend the country from missile attacks. It is the first system of its kind to protect all 50 states from missile attack, on a limited scale.
No ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to announce the deployment of the system, which had been in the works for decades. Instead, the Pentagon has moved quietly and with little fanfare to make the key elements of a missile defense.
The plan, according to the December 2002 White House National Security Presidential Directive, NSPD-23, calls for an “evolutionary approach” to development and deployment of missile defenses that will unfold gradually over the next 10 to 15 years.
That approach began in December 2001 when President Bush met with his key advisers to discuss missile defense and talks with Russian officials.
Eight months of discussions had produced no breakthrough in efforts to modify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which put strict limits on deploying defenses against long-range missile attack.
The treaty, which limited defenses in favor of holding populations hostage to annihilation or “mutually assured destruction” by nuclear missiles, had become a fundamental obstacle to fielding a system of missile interceptors, radar and communications links to protect the United States from the growing danger of long-range missile attack, and the current threat of short-range missiles aimed at U.S. forces.
“Notify the Russians we are withdrawing from the treaty,” Mr. Bush told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The president had promised during his first campaign to deploy a missile shield, and that promise was on the way to being fulfilled.
Six months after the meeting on June 1, 2002, the ABM Treaty ended, opening the way for a missile defense system that had been on the drawing board since President Reagan first announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in March 1983.
The first system now in place at two missile interceptor bases in Alaska and California can stop one or more long-range North Korean missiles fired at the United States.
Other defenses, both airborne and sea-based, will come online beginning next year and will provide a layer of systems designed to knock out missiles and warheads shortly after launch, in the middle of their flight and as they approach their final targets.
“Could we shoot a missile down right now? Yes, we can do so,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. “Trey” Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the Pentagon unit in charge of designing and fielding missile defenses.
The three-star general, a former fighter pilot who worked on the NASA space shuttle program, said the current system is in a “shakedown” period where commanders and troops are working out any bugs and conducting tests and training.
The system has an “emergency” capability that will improve over time with testing and additional deployments, Gen. Obering said.
“We believe that we have gotten all the equipment ready, checked out and verified; we’ve got the crews trained and certified,” he said. “But that in and of itself does not make an operational capability. You need a period of time in which can go through your procedures, wring things out, kind of like a shakedown cruise for a new ship.”
The North Korean threat
MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said the new system is limited to stopping missiles from North Korea. “Any emergency capability for a missile launched from Asia is geared only to a North Korean threat, not China or Russia,” he said.
A third missile interceptor base is planned for Europe in the near future to deal with the growing threat of long-range missiles fired from Iran.
A senior administration official involved in missile defense said the new system also will provide insurance against an “accidental” launch, presumably from either Russia or China, where control over nuclear missiles could be uncertain in a crisis, or, in the case of China, is largely unknown.
The Navy missile defense system is slated for deployment in the next several months. Its contribution is a sea-based system built on up to six Aegis-equipped warships armed with Standard Missile-3 interceptors.
Eighteen Navy warships — 15 destroyers and three cruisers — have been slated to be outfitted for SM-3s. The first six SM-3 will be deployed next year and will increase quickly to 100, Gen. Obering said.
The Navy system will have the ability to shoot down both short-range and long-range missiles and is considered especially lethal because the ships can be moved to cover different targets and defend both U.S. territory or U.S. allies with the help of troops stationed abroad.
The most exotic is the Air Force plan for putting a laser gun in the nose of a Boeing 747 jet that will zap missiles shortly after launch. Other systems include the Patriot PAC-3, the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense and a U.S.-European project known as the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS).
The United States, Germany and Italy signed an agreement in September to spend $3 billion on designing and developing MEADS, a system of mobile launchers using Patriot missiles to stop short-range missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and combat jets.
After more than 19 years of research and development and an estimated $75 billion in costs, the first warhead interceptor system is in place.
The heart of the new U.S. system is called the Ground Based Midcourse Defense. To date, it includes six high-speed missile interceptors deployed at the reopened Army base at Fort Greely, Alaska, near Fairbanks. The Fort Greely complex was built as a test site but is now both an experimental and operational base. The first interceptor was deployed in October.
An additional interceptor was put into place last week, the first to be put into one of four silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. A second Vandenberg interceptor could be deployed before Christmas.
Training and drills
In military terms, the system will be declared formally “operational” later this month or early next month. Before that declaration, elements of three military commands have been busy with training and drills on how to operate the system.
The drills involve simulating the launch of a long-range North Korean Taepo-Dong missile, tracking its flight, acquiring the warhead with targeting equipment and launching an interceptor that is guided to the warhead for a “kill” in space.
The U.S. Strategic Command, based at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., that is in charge of U.S. offensive strategic missiles, will take the lead in operating the new missile defense system worldwide.
Northern Command at Fort Peterson, Colo., which runs the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Northcom), will handle monitoring missile launches around the world and tracking their flights. Northcom is responsible for protecting the U.S. homeland through the ground-based system in Alaska and California.
The Pacific Command in Hawaii is in charge of defending the islands and has control over all Aegis-based Navy missile defenses. It also directs the five Aegis-equipped warships that are assigned to patrol waters near North Korea as part of the system. The ships can provide long-range tracking information as part of the ground-based system.
In Britain and Greenland, work has begun on upgrading large early-warning radar that will be part of the system. Within a year, a large radar built on a mobile oil rig will be deployed near Adak, Alaska, and a large radar, code-named Cobra Dane, on remote Shemya Island, at the tip of Alaska’s Aleutian chain, is also part of the system.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has yet to sign the implementing guidance that will provide commanders with directions on such things as rules of engagement. Defense officials said in the next year or two a third European interceptor site will be built, possibly in Britain, Poland or Romania. Italy and the Czech Republic also are potential interceptor sites.
Watching enemy missile launches will be a key element of the system. A variety of high-tech systems deployed around the world and in space, including radar and satellites, will detect launches, track their flights and hand off information to missile defense components that will be used to guide interceptors and their “kill vehicles” to warheads. The kill vehicle has the capability to identify warheads from dummy warheads designed to defeat missile defenses.
To the surprise of many missile defense proponents, the Bush administration has played down the new defensive system. Mr. Rumsfeld, in particular, instituted tighter secrecy around the program.
During the recent presidential campaign, few references were made to the missile defense system in stump speeches, or the fact that the president has fulfilled a 2000 campaign promise to deploy a system.
A defense official said the September 11 terrorist attacks and the global war on terrorism had refocused priorities away from missile defense development.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, is one of the most outspoken critics of missile defenses. He has argued that funding for missile defense deployment, $10.5 billion for fiscal 2005, should be stopped until more tests can be carried out. He also has said deployment would trigger an arms race.
“The administration is spending billions of dollars to deploy an untested missile defense, against a very unlikely threat,” Mr. Levin said. “This funding should be allocated toward higher priorities, such as homeland defense.”
Mr. Rumsfeld dismisses such critics as defeatist.
“To some people … who have a mind-set that says the way you develop something is you put it into R&D, you develop it, you test it, test it, test it, and never deploy it until it’s working perfectly,” he said. “And anyone who does anything other than that is rushing to deploy. And in my view, that’s just simply not the case.”
Gen. Obering notes a sharp rise in missile threats. In 1972, eight nations had ballistic missile technology. “If you look today, it is 20, growing to almost 30 nations, and many of those are not friendly. We see a sharing of technology as well.”
Terrorists also could obtain missiles, he said.
Gen. Obering is optimistic. “I feel very good about this [initial system], but it is only the beginning,” he said.