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Missile Defense

September 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY KAYE: Alaskans proudly call their state America’s last frontier. And here, 100 miles south of Fairbanks in central Alaska, an army base once slated for closure is now on the frontier of defense technology and scientific know-how. At Fort Greely, the United States is deploying a controversial, multibillion-dollar weapons program.

When declared operational, the system is supposed to fulfill a longtime dream of some military planners: To protect America from long-range ballistic missile attacks. Army Major Gen. John Holly is in charge of building the system at Fort Greely. He says since the United States has no way of shooting down incoming missiles, the need for a missile defense system is obvious.

MAJ. GEN. JOHN HOLLY: If somebody came into your house and was going to kill your family, are you going to stand there and watch them? Are you going to watch that happen, or are you going to try to do something about it? That’s the kind of scenario we are in today.

JEFFREY KAYE: Holly says the system could be operational by the end of this month, with up to five interceptor missiles in their silos. Here’s how the system is supposed to work. If a nation such as North Korea were to launch a missile at the United States, a global web of advanced sensors, satellites, and radars, now in various stages of development, would detect and track it. Commanders would order Fort Greely soldiers to launch an interceptor missile.

At its tip is a device called a kill vehicle. As it approaches the target above the atmosphere, the kill vehicle would separate from the interceptor. Then, using its own thrusters and sensors, it would home in on the enemy missile, striking it at about 15,000 miles per hour. The kill vehicle itself, just 44 inches long and weighing a 140 pounds, carries no explosives.

MAJ. GEN. JOHN HOLLY: There is no warhead in our kill vehicle. It is strictly a kinetic energy collision in space, and the result of that kinetic energy is such that it causes the opposing warhead to disintegrate.

SPOKESMAN: Verifying we have a threat, GFC.

JEFFREY KAYE: Members of a newly formed unit, the Alaska army national guard’s 49th space battalion, are training to operate the anti-missile system. As they do, construction crews at Fort Greely are building launch silos.

MAJ. ERIC MAXON, U.S. Army: What’s happening here is they’re drilling out the holes that will ultimately have silos put in them. Following that work they will be ready to accommodate the ground-based interceptors that will be emplaced here.

JEFFREY KAYE: By the end of 2005, the military hopes to have 16 antimissile launchers deployed at Fort Greely, and another four placed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast. For over 20 years, the Pentagon has been researching and developing a missile defense program.

In 2002, President Bush ordered that a system be built and in place by the end of this year. Even as construction of the national missile defense system moves ahead here in central Alaska, fundamental questions persist. Namely, is it worth the cost? Is the testing adequate? And perhaps most importantly, can it really protect the United States against a missile attack?

PHILIP COYLE, Former Pentagon Official: We’re not talking about early developmental testing now. We’re talking about deployment, deploying, supposedly, an operational system. And so far, the system has no demonstrated capability to deal with a real missile threat.

JEFFREY KAYE: Philip Coyle was a longtime pentagon insider. From 1994 to 2001, he was assistant secretary of defense, running the office that oversees the testing and evaluation of America’s new weapons. In his last months at the Pentagon and since, Coyle has emerged as a leading critic of the missile defense program. He says the U.S. is building a system that hasn’t been adequately tested and that won’t deliver the security its supporters promise.

PHILIP COYLE: This is like deploying a new military aircraft without the wings and the tail and the landing gear. And worse, without testing to see if this new military aircraft could actually work. (Explosion)

JEFFREY KAYE: Since 1997, the military and private contractors building the system, mainly Boeing and Raytheon, have conducted eight missile-versus-missile tests over the Pacific. Target rockets launched from California have been pitted against interceptor missiles carrying the kill vehicle launched from the Marshall Islands, 4,800 miles away. The Defense Department says the kill vehicle has successfully found and destroyed enemy targets in five out of the eight tests.

SPOKESPRSON: Copy that RCL.

JEFFREY KAYE: But Coyle contends those tests have been tightly choreographed to disguise the system’s shortcomings.

PHILIP COYLE: The tests that have been done have been more scripted than a modern political convention. The defender, the defending missile system, has known exactly when the enemy missile surrogate was launched, has known what the trajectory was going to be. They have been able to plot out in advance where the two are going to hit. They know what the reentry vehicle looks like and what the other objects in the target cluster look like. One way to think about this is if I throw a rock at you and I tell you exactly how I’m going to throw it and give you plenty of warning, you might be able to bat it away. That’s the way the tests have been done so far.

SPOKESMAN: I disagree. Every one of our flight tests has been against a progressively more difficult target array in front of us. And they have been against some very sophisticated targets. Now, are they the most complex that someone could imagine? No. But we’re providing an initial limited capability, not an objective capability. So it’s good enough for right now. And the test data that we are getting is extremely useful and will build confidence over time. We will continue to fly against progressively more difficult targets every mission.

JEFFREY KAYE: But a flight test scheduled for this month has been delayed until later in the year because of a computer glitch. Coyle says such problems show that the Bush administration has a misplaced priority: Emphasizing quick deployment instead of more rigorous testing.

PHILIP COYLE: Since the president made his decision to deploy the system in Alaska, the priority and resources have gone to construction at Fort Greely — concrete and rebar, silos on the ground, many buildings, millions of dollars worth of construction. And there haven’t been any flight intercept tests since the president’s decision.

JEFFREY KAYE: That’s where the money should have gone, you are saying.

PHILIP COYLE: That is what I would say, yes.

MAJ. GEN. JOHN HOLLY: This is not like a fighter aircraft where you build five, put them on a shelf. This is one of a kind system. And so we’re in a situation where I’ve got to build it before I can complete all of the necessary testing.

JEFFREY KAYE: In his re-election campaign, President Bush expresses confidence in the missile defense program. Before he took office, the president championed it, promising increased research and development. His administration has spent more than $25 billion on missile defense.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We want to continue to perfect this system so we say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world: You fire, we’re going to shoot it down. (Cheers and applause)

PHILIP COYLE: That’s not correct. The system doesn’t have the capability to do that without all of the aids and artificialities that we have had in the tests so far. So, for the president to say, “bring ‘em on. We have a defense,” that’s misleading to Americans and could be provocative to our enemies.

JEFFREY KAYE: The government accountability office, the research arm of Congress, has called for more realistic tests. And Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry wants a more modest and cautious approach to the program.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Yes, we must build missile defense and invest in missile defense, but not at the cost of other pressing priorities. We cannot afford to spend billions to deploy rapidly an unproven missile defense system. Not only is it not ready, but it is the wrong priority for a war on terror where the enemy strikes with a bomb in the back of a truck or a vial of anthrax in a suitcase.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gen. Holly acknowledges a deployed system will not mean a fail-safe one.

MAJ. GEN. JOHN HOLLY: This is not a perfect system that we are building today. We will have a limited capability– and I would stress a limited capability– but it will be a credible, limited capability.

JEFFREY KAYE: One reason for the limited capability is that important components are in the process of being upgraded or developed.

The missile defense agency is building a floating radar station the size of two football fields to track enemy missiles. It’s putting sea-launched interceptors aboard Navy Aegis cruisers, and it’s developing an airborne laser system to shoot down enemy rockets shortly after launch.

SPOKESPERSON: Lift off is confirmed.

JEFFREY KAYE: The total cost of developing, building and operating a U.S. antimissile shield could climb to well over a trillion dollars.