Missile Wars
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interview: Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish
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Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish has been the director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) since June 1999. Here, he talks about the many obstacles that his agency has overcome and those that still remain, and why he's increasingly confident about the prospects for a defense against long-range missiles. Kadish also responds to criticism that the MDA has become unnecessarily secretive in recent months. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Sherry Jones on May 22, 2002.

To handle a ballistic missile in flight is to actually hit it at high speed, and the sheer force of that collision will destroy the warhead. ... Imagine having a ballistic missile that has three phases of flight. It gets launched under power, the rocket. Then there's a warhead on top that gets thrown off into space and coasts through space in an area that we call the midcourse. Then it re-enters the atmosphere toward its target to do its damage.

Now this warhead is generally about five feet tall and about three feet in diameter, somewhere in that area. It's a cone, and this thing's traveling faster than a bullet: Closing velocities on intercepts are in excess of 15,000 mph. So in order to hit something going that fast with closing velocities and angles is a big challenge.

But what has happened over the past few years, certainly over the last 20, is that computer speeds have gotten better, processing power has gotten better, sensors have gotten better. So we are able now to hit that cone being thrown off by a ballistic missile going those kinds of speeds 15,000 mph or more, collide with it and hit it in a space about that big. ...

Now there are a lot of problems with trying to make that happen. It's been a very difficult technical challenge to accomplish that kind of accuracy at those kinds of speeds. What we've been able to do recently has been ... to prove the fact that we can actually hit the targets we are aiming at. Now we're working on doing that very reliably. Then we're going to try and do it in the presence of countermeasures and realistic threat geometries that we're testing.

So we're early in the stages of that. But it's a very immature technology, in a sense, compared with airplanes that we've been working on for 100 years, and we're still having problems making those effective. But we're pushing the envelope. ... Given the progress we've made, I think it will go very rapidly, in terms of our confidence in being able to do this. It's a tough job, and I think we're making very good progress on it.

... [You've said] that you're increasingly confident. Why?

Because I see the test data. It's not so much we actually have an intercept, but it's the process we're using to achieve those intercepts that give me confidence that we can actually do the job. ... We still have some unanswered questions in terms of countermeasures and those types of things. But the basic technologies we're using, I think, are being proven with every test that we do both in space, as well as in our ground tests.

Will you be able to deploy a system by 2004?

I don't know at this point. We still have some unanswered questions. ... What we're doing in the 2004 time frame is taking the next step and putting together a test bed. That basically involves hooking up the system like we would want to use it in an operational way, and then doing ground and potentially flight tests off of that test bed. That gives us confidence that it's integrated right and that it's operationally useful.

We're going to work as hard as we can to solve the problem. There's nothing right now, that I see, that says we should stop because it's too hard to do.

So that's what we're trying to do by 2004. It's not a deployment in the classic sense of the weapons system being put in the field. It's more like building a test article that you use in a way to wring out all the bugs in the system.

Is that date likely to slip?

In terms of slipping the schedule dates, we certainly have aggressive dates to do what we're trying to do. I don't expect that we would slip for any other reason than we have problems in actually trying to put this thing together. Those are real-life problems. I guess I have high confidence in the date time frame, but pinning down to a specific day would be hard to do at this point in time. ... 2004 within a two- or three-month period or six-month period is probably the confidence that I have right now.

... [If there was an emergency], what would a system like that be able to defend against?

Well, whenever we have test assets of the nature we're talking about here, you'll have an inherent capability -- probably not to the level that we're trying to build the ultimate system to. However, it does have a capability. Since we have, as a country, absolutely no capability to defend ourselves against ballistic missiles once they are launched, then the question comes, if you have test assets that are in the right place at the right time, should you use them to defend the country?

That's a decision that we'll have to make based on a lot of different factors; not the least of which is that we have confidence that they'll do the job. But in the military affairs, having some capability is better than nothing, and we may be able to take a shot if that happens. ...

Would it have effectiveness against China, North Korea?

We're most worried [about] long-range missiles, as well as the shorter-range missiles with the countries like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, the non-traditional nuclear powers, if you will. Because right now if you look at the threats that we face, ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction is really what we call an asymmetric threat to us, because we have overwhelming nuclear response as well as conventional power. Because we have no defense against these weapons in our arsenals today, it becomes an asymmetric response to our national interests and capabilities. So that's why these are worrisome.

It's not Russia, it's not China. It's the terrorists or states that I mentioned that are causing us the most worry.

Critics say that you guys have basically thrown away the yardstick in some ways; that you've been given a blank check basically to put anything in the field that looks like it's real. Is that true and, if so, how can you judge success or capability?

Well, it's not true. ... Normally, what we do in weapons procurement, is we write a requirement. The military services write down what they want; then they hand it over to the developers and then we decide how to meet that requirement.

That process has served us well for building something like an airplane, with 100 years of technology behind us. We can very well understand the technology. We can understand what it could do and we could push the state of the art by doing it that way. When we try to do that for building missile defenses of the nature that we're talking about now, something we haven't done before, that didn't appear to be the right way to do the business of procurement of missile defense.

So what we have done is [say that] what we're going to try to do is ... build as soon as practical what it is technically we can accomplish ... and we're going to do it in a way that provides us as much capability as we know how to do against these weapons. Then, over time, we're going to improve it. ...

Have the requirements been cut back from what they were in some previous time?

... "Cut back" is not really the right characterization. We started out with some [requirements] ... that tried to push us to a "state of the art, as we understood it." But we didn't understand it as well as we needed to, so the requirements were outstripping our ability to do this job. ... So from that standpoint, I guess you're right. We're not meeting, in some cases, those requirements, because they were unattainable the way we understood them.

... How does the public know you're telling the truth when there's (a) so much secrecy and (b) when to some critics, the program has such a long history of exaggeration and even deceit? How can we trust you to do something that's in our best interests?

... That is a hard question. I don't know how to answer it. ... We've got thousands of people working on this issue. The threat is real, and we're trying to do our best to make sure that we can do the job that we've been asked to do. You know, when you come right down to it, it's all about people in the process, and four presidents and at least nine Congresses have asked us to do this job.

But when you say you can do it, why should we believe you?

When we say we can do it, we will have the evidence internally that will give us that confidence. We have an awful lot of people looking at this program for many, many different aspects. I'm confident the country should have very good confidence in our ability to do what we say we can do.

Now I don't know if I accept your premise that there's been exaggerated claims in the past, but we'll leave that to historians to some degree. But this technology is becoming practical. We're not talking about outrageously complicated star satellites on orbit with laser beams and that type of thing for now. We've narrowed this down to a very practical set of technologies. I think that, as we go forward with this, we'll be able to prove not only to the American public and the world at large, but to ourselves, that we can do this. ...

You said ... that you would leave it to history to judge how well the process has operated [and] is operating now. ... How will historians know, since you've announced that you're now going to be classifying the details of future hit to kill tests? ...

Well, historians have all kinds of ways of getting information. I am confident that over the years people will get what they need to make those judgments. One of the things that is always tough for us to deal with is the balance between keeping things secret because if they're known, it makes our systems less effective. ...

For good and sufficient reasons for many years, we've been very open with what we've been doing in missile defense, because we were basically in a technology experimentation mode, OK? Now we've got a big decision to make. ... As these things become closer to reality in a weapons system, why would we want to tell our adversaries the weaknesses that are inherent in any of these systems that we've built, and advertise them, in the name of having a debate about whether we're doing the right thing?

We have many oversight mechanisms in our government. We have the Congress. We have the executive branch. We have average citizens who can voice their concerns in many different ways. We have people who respond to those that are cleared at the proper level. So from an oversight perspective, I'm very confident that even when we keep things classified, people who need to know what we're doing will know what we're doing and make the proper judgments.

For historians in the future, these things are classified for certain periods of time. When they no longer need to be classified, they're available. We have many government historians that could have access to them, as well as others in general. I think the histories written about the atomic bomb are a good example. Those debates and what they did came to light even though they were highly classified at the time. ...

How do you answer critics who say that the scramble for alternative [exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV)] designs suggests that this first generation is basically highly unreliable, and is more or less just kind of paying lip service to the notion of anti-missile defense?

Well, when you look at the Wright brothers in the first days of flight, they went on to their second generation of airplanes very quickly, and they improved very rapidly. Within eight years, the whole aviation industry was born, and it certainly didn't look like the first Wright flyer.

Same issue here with this technology. We learn things about the employment of kill vehicles, how they should be built, what kinds of things we ought to be putting in them to solve the problems that we find during testing. It's a natural evolution that we ought to get better in our kill vehicle technology.

The other thing is that there's a rule of program management that I like to apply every time that I get the chance. When there's risk in accomplishing a job, you want parallel alternative paths, if you will, to be in existence at the same time so that you have a shot at doing the job we've been asked to do. So from that standpoint, yes, we want to improve on the equipment that we first test and we want to do it in many different ways. ...

Won't a smart enemy be able to outwit this system, as the critics are always saying, with decoys and simple countermeasures?

... There's no military system that's perfect, and there will be no defensive system that's absolutely perfect that isn't susceptible to some kind of countermeasure. We've got to worry about that all the time.

Our response to this countermeasure issue is multifaceted in a way. As I said earlier, you have a boost phase, a midcourse phase, and a terminal phase of ballistic missile flight. What we're trying to do with our system is shoot it in the boost phase, shoot it in the midcourse phase, and shoot it, if we can, in the terminal phase. [It's] a layer defense with multiple shots. The system we're talking about now and we're testing rather vigorously is this midcourse phase that's susceptible to countermeasures ... and those types of things.

We're going to do the best we can to overcome countermeasures in the midcourse phase, using the system that we have. But then we're going to add boost phase and other measures to handle and complicate any adversary's countermeasure issue. It's a problem we worry about all the time. It is not something that I think is overwhelming to the system at this point. ...

We've talked to scientists, some of whom have worked on the problem of countermeasures for the Pentagon, who just flat out say that the problem [of decoys and countermeasures] is never going to be solved because of the nature of the problem of the vacuum of space. [And they say] that it will never be solved unless we have very accurate information about what the enemy is lobbing toward us.

... If my memory of history serves me well, it was Lord Calvin, a very eminent scientist at the time, who said that man will never fly. So I respect the opinions of the people who say that because they worked on those types of issues. But over time, we have good ways of solving those types of problems. ...

I would not be so arrogant at this point in time to believe that this problem is insoluble or soluble for that matter. But it will be a give-and-take. It will be an approach that we're going to make a centerpiece of the program over time, that once you build it, you've got to make sure it's viable against all the things somebody's going to try to beat you with. It's no different than any other weapons system that we've ever built.

At this point, I would say the evidence is such that it is a tough problem to deal with countermeasures in the midcourse. That's why we're building a multi-layered approach. Shoot it in the boost phase, midcourse, potentially in the terminal phase, and you greatly complicate the adversary's problem. I believe that we have an approach to this problem that is viable. And with all due respect to the experts, we have our own experts. ...

There's a school of critics that says that the very primitive nature of the most likely warheads that a system like this would confront are the hardest to hit. You know, tumbling warheads versus spin stabilized and all that kind of stuff. ... Is that exaggerating things?

I don't know if it's exaggerating. We worry about that, and we're going to test against it and we're going to have our counter countermeasures to it. Do we have them now? We have ideas on how that will work. We have responses to them. We're not going to talk about them, but we will worry about those types of countermeasures. ...

We have to have a target to shoot at. When you say "a tumbling [warhead]," people can envision this ice cream cone kind of object tumbling through space. We don't make our warheads like that. ... So we have to build a target to go do that, and that is not necessarily a simple, trivial, technical issue.

So when you say, "Well, why don't you go test against it in the next test?" My response to you is we've got to go build it and we've got to go characterize it. ... Yes, we're going to do those types of things. We have to in order to have confidence in the system. ...

How far along is that design work?

Very early stages at this point. Again, going back to where we are in this effort, we're trying to determine whether this technology works. We're going to determine if it's reliable enough. Then we're going to try to do it in the presence of the countermeasures, and this will be one of those things that we go do. ...

You were there for [the first intercept test]. How important was that to you personally and to the program?

Whenever you do a test, it's important. The fact it was successful the first time we did it was a pleasant situation. But we had a long road ahead of us at that time, and I've got to say, we still have a long road ahead of us to do more testing. But it was the first time we actually tried this, so [it] was a significant event in the history of the overall approach that we're taking.

[Editor's note: See "The 'Hit to Kill' Tests" for more.]

How did you feel in July 2000 when that test failed right before the Clinton administration's deployment decision?

... Well, I guess we ought to review where we were. We had the first test that was successful. I think that was in July 1999. Then we had a test ... that following January, and it failed. We had a glitch in the cooling system, as I recall. Then we fixed that, and then we came up to the next test that, at the time, became the linchpin in the deployment decision for what we were calling at the time the National Missile Defense system. We had an unfortunate event where the kill vehicle never [separated from] the rocket it was on. ... Then we went on to actually fix those issues and have had three successive intercepts in the program [since then]. So we are four for six.

I don't like to have a situation where we are not able to accomplish our objectives. So anything in a test program that prevents us from accomplishing our objectives is something that we try to avoid if at all possible. But this business is about success and failure. I know this sounds trite to a lot of people; but we learn as much from our successes as we do from our failures. When we find something wrong and fix it, we have pretty good confidence it won't happen again, or at least we try to minimize that chance. ...

But from an overall perspective during that time frame, given what was going on, it was not a pleasant experience to have an unsuccessful test.

The political stakes were so high.

Well, I don't worry about the political stakes. I try to get this job done. I worry about doing the job as best as we can do it and have confidence in the approach that we're taking. Yes, the stakes were high from a program standpoint. We were trying to do something that the president and the Congress had asked us to do. ...

Right after that, Phil Coyle, as you know, wrote a report [LINK] saying that the program was basically politically driven, the tests were unrealistic and the system was nowhere ready for deployment. That was in the fall of 2000. What did you make of that report and his criticism?

Well, there are a lot of people who write reports. Phil Coyle was in an operational test senior position here, and we've taken the approach in the program to listen to all the critics of our efforts. I don't think most people would be surprised [if someone pointed out] that we've only done one test or two tests and ... maybe it's not operationally ready for use. ...

Phil made one suggestion that we ought to change our test infrastructure in the Pacific in order to do more realistic type of geometries, given the intercept geometries and other types of testing. [And] we've actually gone off and done [it]. ... We've taken many suggestions, not only from him, but from others as well, to make as good a program activity as we can.

Now this is expensive. We are resource limited and we've gone off and done that to the best of our ability. I'm very confident right now that the test bed idea that we have in the Pacific to test these types of systems is going to solve a lot of those problems that people have pointed out to us in the early phases of the program. ...

There's a whole argument that's emerged in the last few years that just having it there, even if it's not used, can be very important for the military. Do you buy that?

I spent my entire career making sure we would deter people from going and using weapons and going to war against the United States. Anything that can convince somebody not to threaten us or to take a second look at what they're trying to do is a good thing, from my perspective. So if we have a deterrent capability that is embodied in whatever we're doing -- not only in missile defense, but across the board -- then I think that's generally a good thing for this country. ...

The scenario that some people have talked about is China and Taiwan. If there was some kind of conflict brewing there, [they've said] that we would feel freer about going in and helping Taiwan if we had that shield there.

Missile defense is about deterrence. The last thing I would want to have happen is have a missile launched at us and deterrence fail from that standpoint. But it's our job right now to work on the technology that will give us confidence that, if that missile is launched against us, whether it's against our deployed forces, our allies, friends or the United States, that we could actually prevent it from reaching its target.

I happen to believe that's inherently a good thing for this country to not be vulnerable to those types of weapons. Now what that allows us to do in the political and geopolitical arrangements should best be left up to the policy makers and the decision makers at the national level. ...

Can you do serious anti-missile work with the Russians?

Sure. ... We have a program with the Russians today that we've been working at for over seven years, I guess, closer to ten.

What's that?

It's called the Russian-American Observation Satellite, RAMOS, for short. We've been playing at the margins on this to try to launch two satellites that we could cooperatively use for early-warning kind of experimentation. So we have those kinds of interchanges already today, and for many years prior to that time.

What about in terms of weapons, interceptors?

We haven't discussed those types of issues. The Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty issues are now going away this June. I expect that we should have the opportunity to enter into discussions, with not only the Russians, but with our allies as to what we ought to be doing about missile defense from their perspectives. ...

Sketch for me just a vision of your idea of what the future is in this business and when would it arrive. ...

Well, we've been asked to put together a program that protects the U.S., our deployed forces, our allies and friends against all ranges of ballistic missile. The way we're trying to do that, given the technology, is in a capability-based, do what we can first and then grow it and improve it over time so that ... we can end up with a very robust defense against shorter-range missiles that threaten our deployed forces and our allies and a limited defense against longer-range missiles that threaten the United States.

Over a period between now and the middle of next decade, the lead times are such that I think we will be able to accomplish that mission or what we've been asked to do, if we are given the resources that we've been asking for. ... Exactly when we will be able to do that, I could only speculate now, because there are some questions that we have to answer technically in order to set schedules.

But what we do know now is that our basic technology of hit-to-kill high-speed intercepts is good enough to take to a test bed capability in the 2004 time frame, and that we're going to act to improve that as well as other measures against shorter-range missiles as quickly as the technology will allow. [This means] that we could be in a position in the latter part of this decade and early next decade to have those kinds of defenses deployed and useful for this country. ...

Do you think this country will ever put anti-missile lasers in space?

I don't know about space. But we're putting them on an airplane right now. It's called the airborne laser. ... We've been working on lasers for 30 years now. Right now we have a program to put laser intercept capability on a 747-like airplane and be able to shoot down missiles while they're boosting and most vulnerable in terms of their flight characteristics, because a boosting rocket has a lot of pressure in it. We believe lasers can actually penetrate the rocket, blow it up and terminate the mission. ...

You don't have an interceptor that has to fly out and meet something in space, so this is a revolutionary technology, and it's nearer term. We don't know if it's going to work, but right now we're putting it on an airplane out at Wichita and we're going to start testing it within the next two years, both on the ground and in-flight. ... So this is not something that is way out in the future. This is here and now in terms of actual engineering. We have high expectations for it. ...

Now whether or not we're ever going to move from an airplane into space is another question. We're doing some research into that. But one of the problems we have with missile defense is that geography is very important. ... The best place to be would be in space if you could do it, because you're always over the locations that might be of interest in the process. So that's why people like to go to space. But we've got a nearer-term capability that we're trying to build which we're putting on an airplane. ...

One of the things that I hear over and over on midcourse ... is that you've got to look at nukes, that only [by using nuclear-armed interceptors] are you going to get the power to really sweep the field clean and to be confident that you are doing the midcourse job that you want to do.

Well, I guess the way I'd respond to that is I'd rather kill them in the boost phase than in the midcourse. If they get to the midcourse, we'll kill them in the midcourse as best we can. The approach that we're going to take is that we'll have multiple opportunities, so we shouldn't count on one particular technology to do the job.

We rejected nuclear weapons as a country, technically and politically, for this job back in the 1970's when we signed the ABM Treaty, and we dismantled the Safeguard system, which was based on nuclear technology.

[Editor's note: See the timeline for more information about the Safeguard system.]

I would point out the Russians have that capability today around Moscow, best of our knowledge. We have chosen a different path in the sense that this hit-to-kill technology can accomplish the job very well. We're proving it in our test program. The issue is, can it do it reliably enough in the presence of different kinds of countermeasures for the midcourse? We're going to answer that question over the coming weeks, months and years to our satisfaction, and then we'll decide what to do about it. ...

Have nukes been ruled out?

We have no program for nuclear interceptor technology today. That's a fact.

But have they been ruled out?

I don't think anybody [thinks that], at this point in time, we ought to rule anything out in terms of our thinking process. But we're not spending resources on this issue, because we have a solution that we think is going to work. ...

What we want to do is protect the American people in the best way we know how to do it. Right now, nuclear weapons is not part of our technology set, and I don't expect it to be. ... We might want to consider that again [if we're totally failing], but we're not even to that point. There are a lot of ways we can beat countermeasures that are postulated.

One of the buzzes that you hear for nukes is that it's the perfect way to make sure you kill germs. [So] if the North Koreans ... wanted to deploy a lot of little smallpox bomb, this would be ... a way to give yourself some confidence you'd be able to sweep the field that way. Do you worry about biological weapons?

Worry about them all the time. Intercepting that warhead, it could be a chemical warhead, it could be a biological warhead, it could be a nuclear warhead, or high explosives warhead. I mean, weapons of mass destruction could come in many different forms.

So we worry about all of those, and hit-to-kill technology is particularly effective against all of those types of weapons, in our opinion, and we've just got to get better at it. Again, these intercepts in the midcourse are done in outer space, OK? And what's in outer space, hopefully, could stay there. ...

Well, they say, au contraire, that the [biological warfare] bomblet is where you can see hundreds of little disbursed things coming at you, so you don't have a single target or two that you're looking at. It's a field of way too many targets that kind of vitiates the whole point-attack scenario.

Those are all issues that we will eventually and are currently dealing with. I guess the real question that needs to be answered is, given the hard problems that we have with this technology -- and people can conjure up all kinds of reasons why it could be built or marginalized to some degree -- ... is it better to have some capability or not?

If you're beaten by countermeasures, you won't be beaten all the time in the process. It's a war-fighting kind of mentality. Go back to Sept. 11. The heroes on that flight that crashed in Pennsylvania saved an awful lot of lives.

Would we have preferred that they had not done what they had tried to do? ... I think most of us would say, if we got a shot, we ought to take it. Hopefully it will be effective enough, and we're going to work as much as we can, as hard as we can, with as best talent as we have in this country to make sure we solve the problem and make it effective.

In the end, it's a tough problem. ... But we're making good progress. We've got a long road ahead, but there's nothing right now that I see that says we should stop because it's too hard to do.

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