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Testing Continues on Missile Defense System

August 15, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: On a recent pre-dawn morning at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, onlookers gathered to observe a test of a missile defense system.

MISSION CONTROL: Plus one, plus two…

JEFFREY KAYE: From about 130 miles away, a Hera rocket was launched to simulate an attacking missile. Soon afterwards, an interceptor missile, part of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD system, soared into the sky.

Minutes later, the THAAD interceptor did exactly what planners hoped it would do in a real battle. Just inside the Earth’s atmosphere, it smashed into the opposing rocket, leaving a luminous cloud of debris in the sky.

The THAAD system is just one component in a massive effort to test and build a defensive weapons system to shield America and its allies from ballistic missile attacks.

It’s a system that received close attention in the wake of missile test launches by North Korea on July 4th. Of the seven weapons tested, one was a new, long-range Taepodong-2 missile, a weapon which might have the range to reach Alaska or Hawaii. Three days after the North Korean tests, President Bush expressed cautious confidence in America’s ability to defend itself against missiles such as the Taepodong-2.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Our missile systems are modest. Our anti-ballistic missile systems are modest. They’re new. It’s new research. We’ve gotten — testing them. And so I can’t — it’s hard for me to give you a probability of success.

JEFFREY KAYE: Pressed to elaborate, the president gave a more upbeat assessment.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, I think we’ve got a reasonable chance of shooting it down. At least that’s what the military commanders told me.

The THAAD missile system

JEFFREY KAYE: The THAAD missile system tested in the New Mexico desert is not considered capable of shooting down a long-range missile like the Taepodong-2, but it is designed to be portable. Planners say that, once deployed to an allied nation, such as South Korea or Japan, THAAD should be able to knock out attacking intermediate- and short-range missiles in North Korea's arsenal.

U.S. Army Colonel Charles Driessnack, the THAAD project manager, said he was elated with the test results.

COL. CHARLES DRIESSNACK, THAAD Project Manager: Well, it's a major step for this system. It shows that all the components are working exactly as expected. It was very representative of a short-range ballistic missile target, so now we are on a very major step in demonstrating the capability of this system.

JEFFREY KAYE: The planned missile defense system, of which THAAD is a part, to date has cost close to $100 billion. The Pentagon calls it a "multi- layered defense."

This is how it's supposed to work: First, radars at sea, in space and on the ground would detect incoming missiles soon after launch. Laser weapons mounted on planes would quickly destroy the missiles. Ground- and sea-based interceptors could also be launched to smash into the incoming rockets during their flight. And yet other weapons, the PATRIOT and THAAD systems, would be able to attack shorter-range missiles as they descend toward their targets.

So far, the centerpiece of the missile defense system consists of 11 ground-based interceptor missiles; nine have been put into launch silos at Alaska's Fort Greely and two at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central California coast.

These long-range interceptors are all armed with so called hit-to-kill vehicles that are supposed to destroy opposing warheads by smashing into them. The U.S. government declared them operational after the North Korean tests, but could these interceptors really defend the United States from a missile assault? Not according to Philip Coyle.

PHILIP COYLE, Center for Defense Information: The missile defense system that's being deployed in Alaska and California has no demonstrated capability to defend the United States against an enemy attack under realistic operational conditions.

JEFFREY KAYE: From 1994 to 2001, Coyle was assistant secretary of defense for testing and evaluation. He is now a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, which is often critical of America's weapons programs. Much of Coyle's criticisms relate to what he says is the poor performance of the interceptor missiles in tightly scripted tests.

PHILIP COYLE: There have been five tests that have been successful; that's the good news. That bad news is there hasn't been a successful flight intercept test with this system now for four years.

The two most recent attempts failed to get off the ground, didn't get out of the silo. And the one before that, the kill vehicle, the pointy end of the interceptor failed to separate from its booster, and so it could never get to the target.

And those five tests that were successful used targeting aides of one kind or another. For example, they would have a beacon, a global positioning system beacon or a radar beacon on them saying, "Here I am, here I am."


JEFFREY KAYE: Beyond testing, there have been other points of concern. A March 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office revealed the interceptors have parts that are unreliable. In addition, important elements of the missile defense system, namely sea- and space-based sensors that would be used to track and pinpoint attacking missiles, haven't been deployed.

Coyle says these problems all add up to a system that is far from operational, a system that he says doesn't have a reasonable chance of shooting down a North Korean missile, as President Bush said.

Representatives of the Missile Defense Agency, which is building the system, and the Northern Command, now in charge of it since it's been operational, would not be interviewed for this segment. But supporters of missile defense, both in and outside of government, remain undaunted.

Defense analyst Baker Spring is a research fellow at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. He says successes like the recent THAAD test in New Mexico demonstrate progress is being made.

BAKER SPRING, Heritage Foundation: It generally shows that the basic technique for destroying ballistic missiles, which is called hit-to-kill technology, is viable, that it is usable, that it can be deployed in a variety of modes -- on ships, on the ground, potentially even in space -- and that that hit-to-kill technology is one that will be effective in countering ballistic missiles of various ranges.

JEFFREY KAYE: Spring acknowledges that the current state of the missile defense system is, in his words, "very thin," but he says there's a better than zero chance of shooting down an incoming missile.

BAKER SPRING: So there is an operational capability there. What is it is not precisely -- you cannot precisely define. But given that we have nothing otherwise, that it seems to me to be prudent that we put that system operational, shift it, if you will, in terms of its focus less on conducting testing and development exercises and conducting it in the context of operational capabilities.

I don't think that we should buy into the fallacy, as I call it, of the perfect defense, that, unless you have perfect defense, no defense is valid.

JEFFREY KAYE: Defense experts who are critical of missile defense say it's a mistake to deploy the system before it's been fully tested. The Missile Defense Agency contends the system needs to be put in place and improved over time.

There have been recent successes. In May and June, interceptors fired from Navy Aegis cruisers destroyed target missiles. As for the $4 billion THAAD program, the system will undergo further testing next year in Hawaii. THAAD is supposed to be ready for operational deployment by 2009.