As much of the nation follows the ongoing War on Terror and events in the Middle East, ground is being broken at a remote U.S. Army post in Alaska for one of the most controversial military programs in history: an antimissile defense system that could eventually cost taxpayers $200 billion.
Supporters claim a national missile defense program is essential to protecting America from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack launched by so-called rogue states. Critics argue that September 11th was the grim confirmation that America's greatest national security threat is terrorism--not a missile attack.
On Thursday, October 10, at 9 P.M. on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE examines both sides of the missile defense debate in "Missile Wars." Through interviews with staunch proponents, skeptical scientists, and military and intelligence experts, the one-hour documentary investigates this multibillion dollar--yet still unproven--weapons system, explores the current rationale for missile defense, and probes whether it will protect America from the greatest threats it now faces.
"Antimissile defense has been one of the most bitter ideological debates in Washington for decades," says FRONTLINE producer Sherry Jones. "And now the Bush administration argues it is so urgent that the Pentagon has launched a crash program to rush deployment."
General Eugene Habiger, former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, says a missile attack clearly is not the greatest threat now facing America. "If I were the military advisor to a Saddam Hussein or the leader of North Korea, and they wanted to know best how to inflict great pain on the United States," he tells FRONTLINE, "a missile would be the last thing I'd recommend."
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich disagrees. "Now that we're getting away from September 11th, the same tired voices are going back to the same sense of 'Gee, this is too dangerous, this is too radical, it's not really that necessary,'" Gingrich tells FRONTLINE. "And all I can say is, one morning there's going to be genuine risk of losing an American city."
Gingrich helped revive national missile defense when he included it in his famous "Contract with America." This was of no small concern to the Clinton administration, which some observers say was fearful of appearing weak on defense.
An intelligence estimate by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded, however, that the threat of a rogue state being able to deploy an ICBM capable of reaching the United States was at least fifteen years away.
Charging that the estimate was the result of political pressure placed on the intelligence community, the Republican-controlled Congress ordered an outside review--a "Team B" exercise--to be chaired by former CIA director Robert Gates. But Gates did not deliver the verdict many proponents of national missile defense were expecting.
"We did agree with the [intelligence] analysts that we were not looking at an imminent, sudden surprise emergence of an operational missile force of any of the countries under consideration," says Janne Nolan, a Gates commission member who now serves as director of international programs at the Eisenhower Institute. "And certainly the least-popular conclusion that Chairman Gates emphasized was that there had been politicization--but it had been in the Congress, not in the intelligence community."
Congress then convened yet another "Team B"--this one chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, a long-time proponent of missile defense. The Rumsfeld Commission concluded that some third-world countries, by collaborating among themselves, cutting corners, and lowering their military specifications, could produce a crude missile of intercontinental range far sooner than the CIA had predicted.
"The thing that came to all of us on the Rumsfeld Commission as the greatest surprise was just how much these bad actors were helping one another and how much help was coming to them from Russia and China--some of it officially sanctioned," says Paul Wolfowitz, who served on the commission and is now Rumsfeld's deputy secretary of defense.
Critics, however, say the Rumsfeld panel simply lowered the intelligence bar, altering the standard from what was "probable" to what was merely "possible."
"It raised the specter of fear, of uncertainty, of the unknown, of threats coming from anywhere at any time," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And if that was your threat, who wouldn't want a national missile defense to protect us?"
Just one month after the release of the Rumsfeld report, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile with a third stage that, if successful, might have given it intercontinental range. Although the third stage fizzled and the test was a technical failure, missile defense advocates claimed vindication.
"When North Korea launched their three-stage rocket, the CIA got caught again off-guard," charges U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa). "They weren't even aware the North Koreans had a capability for a three-stage rocket."
Though General Patrick Hughes, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, denies Weldon's charges, the intelligence community did take the unprecedented step of revising its estimate on ICBM threats. Analysts adopted the lowered Rumsfeld standard--what "could happen" as opposed to what was "likely to happen."
Gates Commission member Nolan says the adoption of the "could happen" standard was "quite a shock." "Judged against that kind of notion," she says, "there's very little that you could rule out. You 'could' be hit by meteorites."
Despite the intense political pressure, the CIA refused to budge on one point: An attack by an ICBM was still the least likely threat that America faced. Far more likely, the agency said, was an attack by terrorists.
Nevertheless, the Clinton administration reversed course and began moving ahead with plans for a limited, Alaska-based antimissile defense program. Repeated test failures and other technical weaknesses, however, were accompanied by criticism that the tests themselves were not objective measurements of an antimissile system's actual performance.
"When the Army wants to test its equipment, wants to test the abilities of its officers, they have maneuvers. In the maneuvers the blue team is not told in advance exactly what the red team is going to do," says Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. "The [hit-to-kill] tests so far have been like a maneuver in which the blue team is told exactly what the red team's plans are. That's not a serious test of a system."
In the summer of 2000, President Clinton deferred the decision on deployment to his successor. With a Republican president back in the White House, however, missile defense has once again been placed on the front burner.
"I look at people who doubt our ability to create this and I think, 'What century are you living in?'" Gingrich tells FRONTLINE. "For the last 250 years, humans have been increasingly good at inventing science and technology that accomplished things."
But many scientists question whether a missile defense system as envisioned is technologically possible.
"The strongest proponents of national missile defense have no technical understanding at all," contends Dr. Richard Garwin, a physicist who served on the Rumsfeld Commission.
Philip Coyle, former director of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon, agrees. "Pentagon briefings for national missile defense show Plexiglas domes over the United States, and we imagine that enemy missiles will bounce off this Plexiglas dome like hail off a windshield," he says. "It simply isn't in the cards."
Despite the technical hurdles, the director of the missile defense program promises to persevere. "It's all about people in the process, and four presidents and at least nine Congresses have asked us to do this job," says Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. "There's nothing that I see that says we should stop because it's too hard to do."
Following the broadcast, visit FRONTLINE's Web site at www.pbs.org/frontline for extended coverage of this story, including:
"Missile Wars" is a FRONTLINE co-production with Azimuth Media and Washington Media Associates in association with The New York Times. The writer and producer is Sherry Jones.
The senior editor for Azimuth Media is Michael Gordon. Technical advisors for Azimuth Media are William Broad and Philip Coyle. Glenn Baker is the executive producer for Azimuth Media.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.
Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers. Additional funding for "Missile Wars" is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Turner Foundation, and The Prospect Hill Foundation, Inc.
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FRONTLINE XXI/October 2002
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