Missile Wars
homethe threatthe technologythe strategydiscussion
'theater' missile defenses

"I've concluded that 'national' and 'theater' are words that aren't useful," announced Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in March 2001, serving notice that the Bush administration would take a new tack on missile defense. Here's a brief look at "theater" missile defenses -- those designed to protect U.S. troops in the field and U.S. allies -- and the Bush administration's plans to integrate short-range missile defense technologies into a national ballistic missile defense.

It used to be that when policymakers talked about "national missile defense," they were referring to systems that would protect U.S. territory from the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads. Only two countries, China and Russia, are known to possess ICBMs -- missiles with a range greater than 5,500 kilometers -- capable of threatening U.S. territory.

But there are many countries with short-range ballistic missiles in their arsenals -- missiles with ranges from 100 to 1,000 kilometers -- many of them built using Soviet Scud missile technology. Scuds lobbed by Iraq were a very real threat to U.S. troops on the battlefield, as well as U.S. allies, during the 1991 Gulf War. The Patriot anti-missile system, which was pulled into service then, was an example of a "theater missile defense"; in other words, a defense against short-range missiles.

In the few short weeks of the Gulf War, according to the original U.S. Army tally, Patriot missiles shot down 45 of 47 Scuds that had been launched. But analysis by MIT physicist Theodore Postol and others would eventually reveal that Patriot missiles had intercepted, at most, only four of the Scuds launched by Iraq. The Pentagon eventually admitted that the Patriot was a Gulf War bust (though its manufacturer still insists otherwise). But the failure of the Patriot prompted the chiefs of the military services to push for development of a weapon that could protect U.S. troops against short-range ballistic missiles.

The difference between Scud-like short-range missiles and an ICBM capable of reaching the United States was lost in the political debate. "To say that, because the Patriot worked, an ABM defense of the U.S. should be deployed, was the equivalent of saying that anyone who could build a barn could build a skyscraper," writes Frances FitzGerald in Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (2000). "The task of blowing aside a Scud in its short trajectory through the atmosphere and that of hitting a warhead traveling through space and descending into the atmosphere were two different things."

In September 2001, when the Pentagon released its "Quadrennial Defense Review Report," it stated that the Defense Department had,

Related Feature

Related Links

... refocused and revitalized the missile defense program, shifting from a single-site "national" missile defense approach to a broad-based research, development, and testing effort aimed at deployment of layered missile defenses. ... These defenses will help protect U.S. forward-deployed forces. Moreover, they will provide limited defense against missile threats not only for the American people, but also for U.S. friends and allies.

The Bush administration has combined all its efforts to build anti-ballistic missile defenses under the single heading of "ballistic missile defense," and says that it will adapt short-range technologies -- which are developmentally farther along than long-range missile defenses -- to help protect the U.S. against ICBMs.

But the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3), the successor to the Patriot missile, is having troubles of its own. In August 2002, the Pentagon decided to delay the decision to move the PAC-3 to full production because it failed these operational tests. And last December, the Navy cancelled the sea-based equivalent of PAC-3, reportedly because of cost and schedule overruns.

To understand the nature of current short-range defense technologies -- and the challenges involved in adapting them for long-range defense -- here is an excerpt from a recent article by Philip Coyle, former director of test and evaluation at the Pentagon and a consultant to FRONTLINE on "Missile Wars," from the May 2002 issue of Arms Control Today. It was written before the August decision to delay the decision about the future of the PAC-3.

Theater Missile Defenses

· Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3)

The Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) is a tactical system designed to defend overseas U.S. and allied troops in a relatively small area against short-range missile threats (such as Scuds), enemy aircraft, and cruise missiles. Developmentally, it is the most advanced U.S. missile defense system, and a small number have been made available for deployment although testing has not yet been completed.

PAC-3 flight testing began in 1997. From 1997 to 2002, 11 developmental flight tests were conducted, including four flight intercept tests with two or three targets being attempted at once. Most of these tests were successful, but in two of the tests one of the targets was not intercepted. In February, PAC-3 began initial operational testing, in which soldiers, not contractors, operate the system. Three operational tests have been conducted, all with multiple targets. In each, one of the targets has been missed or one of the interceptors has failed.

A year ago, PAC-3 was planned to begin full-rate production at the end of 2001. However, problems with system reliability and difficulties in flight intercept tests have delayed that schedule. This means that full-rate production likely will be delayed until more stressing "follow-on" operational tests can be conducted against targets flying in a wide range of altitudes and trajectories. In March, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who heads U.S. missile defense programs, testified to Congress that the full-rate production decision would be made toward the end of 2002 (before operational testing has been completed), representing a delay of about a year since last year. The full system will be deployed once all operational testing has been completed, perhaps around 2005.

A future version of PAC-3 is being considered for terminal defense of the United States. However, PAC-3 was not designed to counter long-range threats, and no flight intercept tests have been conducted to demonstrate how it might be incorporated in a terminal defense layer. Further, the ground area that can be defended by PAC-3 is so small that it would take scores of systems to defend just the major U.S. cities. A version of PAC-3 that could be effective in a national missile defense is probably a decade away.

· Theater High Altitude Air Defense

The Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system is designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles in their terminal phase. THAAD would be used to protect forward-deployed troops overseas as well as nearby civilian populations and infrastructure. THAAD is to defend a larger area against longer-range threats than PAC-3, but it is not designed to protect the United States from ICBMs.

From 1995 to 1999, 11 developmental flight tests were performed, including eight in which an intercept was attempted. After the first six of those flight intercept tests failed, the program was threatened with cancellation. Finally, in 1999, THAAD had two successful flight intercept tests. The THAAD program has not attempted an intercept test since then, instead focusing on the difficult task of developing a new, more reliable, higher-performance missile than the one used in early flight tests.

A year ago, full-rate production was scheduled to begin in 2007 or 2008, but because there were no intercept tests in 2000 or 2001, that schedule has likely slipped two years or more. In fact, no flight intercept test is scheduled until 2004, and it is therefore unlikely that the first THAAD system will be deployed before 2010.

The Bush administration is considering THAAD for use in a layered national missile defense system. Conceptually, THAAD might be used in conjunction with PAC-3 as part of a terminal defense, or it could be deployed overseas to intercept enemy missiles in the boost phase. However, in its current configuration THAAD is incapable of performing these missions -- even once it has met its Army requirements for theater missile defense -- and therefore a role for THAAD in national missile defense is probably more than a decade away.

· Navy Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense

The Navy Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense was the sea-based equivalent of PAC-3. The Navy Area system was being designed to defend forward-deployed Navy ships against relatively short-range threats. But in December 2001 the program was cancelled because its cost and schedule overruns exceeded the limits defined by law. (Ironically, the cancellation came just one day after President Bush announced that the United States would pull out of the ABM Treaty because its missile defense testing was advanced enough to be bumping up against the constraints of the treaty.)

The Navy still wants to be able to defend its ships against missile attack, and the program will most likely be restructured and reinstated once the Navy decides on a new approach. In the meantime, the Navy Area program is slipping with each day that passes. As with PAC-3, the Bush administration has considered extending the Navy Area system to play a role in the terminal segment of a layered national missile defense. However, at this point the program is too poorly defined to allow speculation about when it could accomplish such a demanding mission.

· Navy Theater Wide

The Navy Theater Wide program was originally intended to defend an area larger than that to be covered by the Navy Area system -- that is, aircraft carrier battle groups and nearby territory and civilian populations -- against medium-range missiles during their midcourse phase. In this sense, Navy Theater Wide is the sea-based equivalent of THAAD.

In January, the Navy Theater Wide program conducted its first successful flight intercept test, but a dozen or more developmental flight tests will be required before it is ready for realistic operational testing. About a year ago, full-rate production was scheduled for spring 2007, meaning that the system could be deployed before the end of the decade.

But since then, the Pentagon has given new priority to a sea-based role in defending the U.S. homeland. Navy Theater Wide was not designed to shoot down ICBMs, but the Bush administration has restructured the program so that it aims to produce a sea-based midcourse segment and/or a sea-based boost-phase segment of national missile defense.

Either mission will require a new missile that is twice as fast as any existing version of the Standard Missile, which the system now uses; a new, more powerful Aegis radar system to track targets; a new launch structure to accommodate the new, larger missiles; and probably new ships. As a result, the Navy Theater Wide program requires a great deal of new development. It is unlikely that Navy Theater Wide will be ready for realistic operational testing until late in this decade, and it will not be ready for realistic operational demonstration in a layered national missile defense for several years after that.

· Airborne Laser

The Airborne Laser (ABL) is a program to develop a high-power chemical laser that will fit inside a Boeing 747 aircraft. It is the most technically challenging of any of the theater missile defense programs, involving toxic materials, advanced optics, and the coordination of three additional lasers on-board for tracking, targeting, and beam correction. The first objective of the program is to be able to shoot down short-range enemy missiles. Later, it is hoped the ABL program will play a role in national missile defense by destroying strategic missiles in their boost phase.

The ABL has yet to be flight-tested. About a year ago, full-rate production of the ABL was scheduled for 2008. The plan was to build seven aircraft, each estimated to cost roughly $500 million. At that time, the first shoot-down of a tactical missile was scheduled for 2003. Recently, the ABL program office announced that the first shoot-down of a tactical missile had been delayed to late 2004 because of many problems with the basic technology of high-power chemical lasers -- about a one-year slip since last year and about a three-year slip since 1998. Accordingly, full-rate production probably cannot be started before 2010, and the cost will likely exceed $1 billion per aircraft.

Assuming all this can be done, it is important to note that the ABL presents significant operational challenges. The ABL will need to fly relatively close to enemy territory in order to have enough power to shoot down enemy missiles, and during a time of crisis it will need to be near the target area continuously. A 747 loaded with high-power laser equipment will make a large and inviting target to the enemy and will require protection in the air and on the ground. Finally, relatively simple countermeasures such as reflective surfaces on enemy missiles could negate the ABL's capabilities.

Deployment of an ABL that can shoot down short- and medium-range tactical targets is not likely before the end of the decade, and the Airborne Laser will not be able to play a role in national missile defense for many years after that.

Excerpted with permission from "Rhetoric or Reality? Missile Defense Under Bush" by Philip Coyle (Arms Control Today, May 2002).

home · the threat · the technology · the strategy · introduction · map
timeline · producer's chat · interviews · quiz: missile test · discussion
tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

photograph © 1996 CORBIS; original image courtesy of NASA/CORBIS
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation



Solitary NationApril 22nd