By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
And would that mean a total miss? How precise does the intercepting kill vehicle have to be?
It has to be precise within a fraction of a meter.
That’s a tall order.
Yes. It‘s ridiculous to believe that our potential adversaries would be able to build ICBMs and warheads but not be able to devise these kinds of countermeasures.
You’ve said that the Pentagon went easy on its own tests of the systems. They didn‘t use these kinds of decoys.
They didn’t do anything. First, their data showed clearly that the sensors wouldn‘t be able to distinguish tumbling warheads from tumbling decoys. So in the actual test series, they modified the tests to never deal with those kinds of a decoys. They removed that kind of threat from their test program in order to claim they can build a system that’s workable.
Tell me about the test of the system last July, which failed altogether.
That test was an extraordinary set of failures. First, the only targets were a warhead and a large balloon. The balloon is almost 10 times brighter than the warhead. There was no discrimination necessary. They told the kill vehicle ahead of time, “You are going to see two objects -- a large bright object and a less-bright one. Now, go after the less-bright one.” Even if it had gone well, it would have proved nothing because it was the simplest possible situation you can imagine. But the test warhead and decoy didn‘t deploy properly; the kill vehicle didn’t deploy properly. They screwed up the whole thing.
Clinton used this test as a reason for delaying the decision to employ the National Missile Defense program, citing the uncertain technology. But the current administration has signaled its interest in building the system --
Whether or not it works.
And we‘ve been talking about what is called a midflight interception, right?
Right. This is not a boost-phase interception. This happens many hundreds of kilometers in altitude, where there’s no atmosphere.
What about a system that tries to intercept the missiles at a different point in the trajectory?
A boost-phase interception or a re-entry interception, that is where the missile is exiting or re-entering the atmosphere, would make decoying much harder.
Let me ask you about that. Some, including Bush‘s advisers, propose boost-phase interception as a more workable alternative. How feasible is it?
Well, there are a lot of caveats here. I am not an advocate of a boost-phase system. But I will say that I have analyzed it more than anyone else. If the threat is North Korea, and they’re using a fairly primitive missile technology, you could build a system of radars and interceptors that would have a very good chance of getting those missiles.
But a good booster-phase system still wouldn‘t be able to answer a large-scale attack or even a limited attack from missiles launched inland, from China, for example, or even Iran for that matter.
Right. Well, let me say this. Suppose that I can build a defense system that is so capable and robust that no missile could get through -- 100 percent effective. Then, you might have a case for it. I say “might” because the likely response from our adversaries would be to try to develop weapons with different modes of delivery or to concentrate on short-range missiles [which are much harder to intercept because they are in the air less time] or to threaten our allies. So increased security for us, in this optimistic case, would come at the expense of arms control and the security of our allies. Now the other extreme, which is the situation we currently have, and will continue to have, is that defense, even under the most optimal conditions, is unlikely to work. But we will provoke the reaction anyway. This is the worst of both worlds: The defense has no capability, while also prompting our adversaries to step up the threat.
Is there any system that will ever work effectively, or is the whole idea a bust?
Right. There are new proposals all the time. The most recent idea is lasers mounted on airplanes.
Well, a laser on an airplane has some potential to shoot down an ICBM. Now there’s an important caveat there as well. It‘s not yet demonstrated that lasers have the power or beam quality that would make it effective. And maybe they will. On the other hand, a laser can only destroy a rocket in powered flight, which means that it will target the booster, leaving the warhead or biological payload or whatever else is in there to fall to Earth before it gets here. That would mean a WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] payload falling somewhere else, like in Canada. And that might bother the Canadians.
So lasers or other systems, even if effective, wouldn’t solve all the ancillary problems of missile defense: no protection against short-range missiles; no protection for allies; and the slippery slope of arms escalation and even militarizing space.