Missile Wars
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Written and produced by Sherry Jones

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons!

NARRATOR: While President Bush presses for a war with Iraq, another crucial decision about America's defenses has gone almost unnoticed. The president has decided to build a missile defense system to shoot down enemy ICBMs.

    Rep. CURT WELDON (R-PA): We have no capability to take out an incoming ICBM. And people say, "Well, what price should you pay?" And I say, "Well, how much is Philadelphia worth?"

    Gen. GENE HABIGER, Cmndr, Strategic Command '96-'98: Who doesn't want to protect America? But some things are just beyond our technological capability. We have many more things to worry about than the very unlikely probability of a missile from a rogue state coming across the horizon.

NARRATOR: Tonight on FRONTLINE, Missile Wars.

Deep below Colorado's Cheyenne Mountain is the North American Aerospace Defense Command - NORAD. Here, Air Force officers monitor constant information from a global web of satellites and radar. They would be the first to alert the president of an incoming missile attack.

Every day they detect rocket launches somewhere around the world. But in the history of Cheyenne Mountain, they have never seen the launch of the deadliest weapon ever invented, a nuclear-armed ICBM. That has always been the feared nightmare scenario, until September 11th.

For some, this was the tragic proof that terrorists are a far greater danger than missiles. For others, it was the simple proof that the homeland itself is vulnerable.

NEWT GINGRICH: We could lose a quarter million to a million people to a weapon of mass destruction. And I think we just need to really ask ourselves, given how we felt on September 11th, isn't it worth a little preparation to try to avoid that happening on a grand scale?

    Newt Gingrich
    Speaker, House of Representatives
    Member, Defense Policy Board

NARRATOR: Newt Gingrich has been arguing for a ballistic missile defense since his days as Speaker of the House.

NEWT GINGRICH: People who understand weapons of mass destruction are truly worried that somebody like Kim Jong Il in Korea or Saddam Hussein in Iraq are going to end up with a weapon of mass destruction on the end of a missile that can be delivered 28 minutes later, and that they're crazy enough to do it.

NARRATOR: But the question has long been: Is building a shield against missile attack possible?

RICHARD PERLE: It seems a perfectly natural thing to do. You put a roof over your head because you don't want to be rained on. And if you can protect the sky overhead from a missile that might come in, that seems a natural thing to do.

    Richard Perle
    Assistant Secretary of Defense
    Chairman, Defense Policy Board

NARRATOR: Richard Perle has led a foreign policy shadow cabinet since the Reagan years.

RICHARD PERLE: If the decision is to build a missile defense and that turns out to be wrong - wrong because we don't need it, because the threat doesn't materialize as we thought it would - we will have wasted some money building a missile defense. But suppose the other decision, not to build one, turns out to be wrong?

    ANNOUNCER: [Coalition to Protect Americans Now television commercial] Where will you be? Where will you be when the missiles are launched? Dangerous nations like North Korea and Iran will soon have nuclear missiles that-

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: The proponents of missile defense sort of prey on the fears of people. They have been crying wolf about missiles for decades.

    ANNOUNCER: Where will you be?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: And they have sucked billions in defense dollars out of other needed programs towards this illusion of missile defense, and more importantly, have diverted us from the real threats that we face.

    Joseph Cirincione
    House Armed Services Committee
    Director, Non-Proliferation
    Carnegie Endowment for Int'l Peace

NARRATOR: Joseph Cirincione has long challenged the proponents of missile defense.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: They spin these elaborate - however illogical - scenarios of a madman or a terrorist group or an unknown country or group acquiring an ICBM and using it to attack the United States. And they say that it'd be irresponsible for the president not to provide protection, if we could. And of course, there's the rub. Can we? Is it really feasible? Can you really do this? And after a good 40 years of trying and over $100 billion, we still don't have an answer.

NARRATOR: For four decades, questions of cost and technology have haunted the divisive debate. Today the carcass of the only anti-missile weapon the United States ever deployed lies scattered across the North Dakota prairie. It was called Safeguard. It was ordered by President Richard Nixon. Nuclear-tipped interceptors would blow up Soviet rockets heading toward U.S. missile silos.

The Pentagon secretly warned that the Soviets would be able to overwhelm it. Safeguard would quickly become obsolete. And in a top secret memo, Nixon was told the lead contractor "wants out of the business" because "the system cannot adequately perform the mission assigned it."

The day after Safeguard became operational, Congress voted to shut it down. The system lasted 133 days and cost $25 billion.

    Pres. RONALD REAGAN: I call upon the scientific community in our country to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

NARRATOR: And then in 1983, Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative. Skeptics called it "Star Wars." Reagan's dream would eventually die of its own weight. The technology remained unproven.

By the time Bill Clinton was sworn in as president, SDI was another expensive footnote to history. The cold war had ended, and with it the rationale for a defense against Soviet missile attack.

Watching the Soviet union fall apart, the Pentagon worried about accidental launch. But the threat of a long-range ballistic missile shot by a third world country and capable of hitting the United States was near the bottom of its list of strategic fears.

Gen. GENE HABIGER: I saw no credible intelligence at that time that we should be concerned.

    General Eugene Habiger
    U.S. Air Force (Retired)
    Commander in Chief
    U.S. Strategic Command

NARRATOR: A career missilier, General Gene Habiger rose to command U.S. strategic nuclear forces.

Gen. GENE HABIGER: There's a great leap of faith between being able to build a missile and being able to build a nuclear warhead to go on that missile, that can survive the temperature extremes, the G-loading, the fusing requirements, the vibration. These are very, very daunting obstacles as one attempts to build a capability.

If I were the military adviser to Saddam Hussein or the leader of North Korea and they wanted to know best how to inflict great pain on the United States, a missile would be the last thing I'd recommend. There is a spotlight on that missile launch, so that our decision-makers are going to know exactly where that missile came from. You can't hide the infrared plume that's generated from a missile.

A nuclear device that you put in a trunk, a travel trunk, that's what caused me to lay awake at night, not an incoming missile.

NARRATOR: The chiefs of the military services also worried about short-range ballistic missiles, like Soviet-made Scuds, that had been a very real threat to troops on the battlefield and U.S. allies during the Gulf war.

NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House, 1995-'99: Anybody who remembers vividly watching, for example, broadcasts from Tel Aviv, where they didn't know if the next incoming Scud was going to have a chemical warhead or a biological warhead, ought to give people a pretty good sense of why we think it's important to have missile defense.

NARRATOR: Bipartisan majorities voted money to develop a weapon that could defend against short-range missiles. But in 1994, the Republican "Contract With America" demanded a national missile defense. And in the ensuing political debate, the distinction between short and long-range missiles was blurred.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, Dir. Non-Prolif., Carnegie Endowment: The only defense point in the contract was on national missile defense. And so when the Republicans regained control of the House and the Senate, they came in with a sense of commitment and a sense of mission to revive national missile defense. And they did it brilliantly.

NARRATOR: Key to the Republican strategy was finding a post-Soviet missile threat.

    Rep. CURT WELDON: [House floor speech] -that it's time, based upon the threat and based upon the changing world, to move in a new direction-

NARRATOR: Congressman Curt Weldon took the lead.

Rep. CURT WELDON: We have no capability, none, to take out an incoming ICBM. To me that's unacceptable. And people say, well, what price should you pay? And I say, well, how much is Philadelphia worth?

    Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA)
    Chairman, Military Procurement Subcmte.
    Founder, Missile Defense Caucus

NARRATOR: Weldon is founder and chairman of the Missile Defense Caucus.

Rep. CURT WELDON: Mal O'Neill was the general in charge of the ballistic missile defense organization. I said to him, "Let's get a new, updated National Intelligence Estimate from the intelligence community."

NARRATOR: When a National Intelligence Estimate is requested, the country's 13 top spy agencies pool their resources. In the 1995 NIE, the group of analysts concluded that a long-range missile threat to the continental United States was not likely for at least 15 years.

"We have no evidence Iran wants to develop an ICBM," they reported. "Iraq's ability to develop an ICBM is severely constrained by international sanctions and intrusive U.N. inspections and monitoring. Among third world countries hostile to the United States, North Korea has the most advanced ballistic missile program." But the NIE added, "North Korea would have to overcome significant hurdles to complete such a program," which the U.S. would likely detect.

RICHARD COOPER: The judgment was that it would be essentially impossible for a country to deploy a ballistic missile without our having become aware of it.

    Dr. Richard Cooper
    Under Secretary of State
    Chairman, National Intelligence Council

NARRATOR: As head of the National Intelligence Council, Richard Cooper signed off on all intelligence estimates.

RICHARD COOPER: Then the key issue becomes how much lead time do we have? The judgment in the estimate was a number of years. We would have years of warning.

NARRATOR: When the unclassified summary of the NIE began to circulate on Capitol Hill, Republicans charged it had been leaked to help defeat missile defense.

NEWT GINGRICH: The Clinton administration didn't want to offend their allies on the left by building a missile defense, and they didn't want to offend the American people by admitting that they needed a missile defense they wouldn't build. So I think they just put pressure on the intelligence agencies to issue a report that wasn't true.

RICHARD COOPER: There was no political interference whatsoever. I mean, that I can affirm. Some people were, unquestionably - and they didn't make any bones about it - committed to a national missile defense already back in the mid-'90s. And of course, to be told by the most authoritative kind of statement produced by the intelligence community- which is what these National Intelligence Estimates are because they draw on all branches of the community. To be told that, at least within this timeframe, there didn't seem to be a threat- that was unhelpful from their point of view.

NEWT GINGRICH: All of us who were technically interested just found it outrageous that the political system had so totally distorted and perverted the intelligence process.

NARRATOR: To challenge the intelligence community, the Republican leadership ordered that an outside panel examine the evidence.

JANNE NOLAN: We were tasked with looking at whether analysts had deliberately misled a process that is really sacrosanct in the intelligence community, doing an honest assessment of the threat.

    Dr. Janne Nolan
    National Security Studies
    Georgetown University
    Director, International Programs
    Eisenhower Institute

NARRATOR: Janne Nolan, an expert in arms proliferation, was named to the blue-ribbon panel.

JANNE NOLAN: If you look at the list of people who were members of the commission, many of them proponents of missile defense on the conservative side of the defense agenda, and certainly, very sober people who were not- could not be accused of having any kind of liberal bias, they were not a crowd of arms controllers.

    ROBERT GATES, Commission Chairman: [congressional hearing] More than a dozen countries have ballistic missiles. Several are attempting-

NARRATOR: Robert Gates, deputy national security adviser and director of the CIA during the first Bush administration, was chairman.

JANNE NOLAN: When Mr. Gates went to testify, he got a friendly audience. He's very, I think, quite well liked by the members of the committee. When he stated the conclusions of the commission, however, the atmosphere changed dramatically.

ROBERT GATES: The panel believes the intelligence community has a strong case that, for sound technical reasons, the United States is unlikely to face an indigenously developed and tested intercontinental ballistic missile threat from the third world before 2010.

JANNE NOLAN: 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.

    ROBERT GATES: There was no breach of the integrity of the intelligence process. Beyond this, the panel believes that unsubstantiated allegations challenging the integrity of intelligence community analysts by those who simply disagree with their conclusions, including by members of Congress, are irresponsible.

[www.pbs.org: Read the Gates panel's findings]

NARRATOR: The attempt to pressure the CIA had failed. So the advocates of missile defense moved to appoint a new threat commission and try again.

It was 1996, and Bill Clinton, in the midst of his re-election campaign, moved to take the issue of missile defense away from his Republican critics.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: The Republicans always attacked the Democrats as being weak on defense. The Clinton response was to triangulate the issue, to sort of embrace missile defense, to say, "We can bring you a missile defense that'll be better and more affordable" than some of the Republican schemes, and to neutralize this as an election issue. And he did so very effectively. It was not an issue in the '96 election.

NARRATOR: In his election-year maneuvering, Clinton promised to begin three years of research and testing toward a limited missile defense. The program would take on a life of its own.

For decades, Kwajalein atoll, a flyspeck of an island in the middle of the Pacific, has been a U.S. missile test site. Now teams from the biggest contractors in the defense business would work to develop what the president had ordered, a system to shoot down a missile during the time it travels through space.

A "kill vehicle" - a miniaturized package of sensors, computers and thrusters - would zoom up 140 miles, home in on the enemy warhead during the mid-course of its flight, and smash it to bits through the sheer force of the collision. The Pentagon calls it "hit to kill."

In the run-up to each test, the teams on Kwajalein would ready Raytheon's $24 million kill vehicle, along with Boeing's $12 million booster rocket. Forty-three hundred miles away, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California, other crews would assemble. Their task, to launch a $19 million Minuteman target rocket, along with its mock warhead, to simulate the flight of an enemy missile.

In the first two tests, the kill vehicle would simply fly by the dummy warhead without trying to hit it. At least 20 tests were planned. Each would cost $100 million, the most expensive half hour in military testing.

Back in Washington, Republicans derided Clinton's limited defense as a political ploy and waited for the results of the second commission they had created to critique the CIA. This time it was headed by Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense in Gerald Ford's administration, head of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, and a long-time advocate of missile defense.

    DONALD RUMSFELD: [at press conference] I should note that our conclusions do differ somewhat from estimates and reports of the U.S. intelligence community. They differ as to the scope, the maturity and the pace of the-

NARRATOR: In July, 1998, Rumsfeld and his eight commissioners presented their report on the missile threat from the so-called "rogue states."

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: The thing that came to all of us on the Rumsfeld commission as the greatest surprise was to understand just how much these bad actors were helping one another, and moreover, how much help was coming to them from Russia and China, some of it officially sanctioned.

    Dr. Paul Wolfowitz
    Under Secretary of Defense
    Deputy Secretary of Defense

NARRATOR: Paul Wolfowitz is now number two in the Pentagon under Secretary Rumsfeld.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: North Korea is out selling its dangerous technology to anyone who wants to buy it. We see collaboration among a variety of countries, and so the notion that they're dependent only on their indigenous technology to develop, which had been the basis of the previous assessments, was simply wrong.

NARRATOR: Based on briefings from U.S. defense contractors about their own capabilities, Rumsfeld's commission concluded that a country like North Korea could deploy an ICBM "within about five years of a decision to develop" one. But to reach that conclusion, the commission lowered the intelligence standard from what was likely to happen to what was merely possible.

    NEWT GINGRICH: [press conference] This report says unanimously we need to assume that there may be no strategic warning about the development of-

NARRATOR: The Rumsfeld commission had produced the threat advocates of missile defense had been seeking.

NEWT GINGRICH: I never said we ought to try to stop a Russian first strike or a Chinese first strike. I said, "Give me an old, dumb, simple, single-warhead North Korean missile, and I'll give you a threat large enough that's worth killing because it'll take out a city."

RICHARD GARWIN: Would you say that proponents of missile defense were happy with the report? Yes, they were very happy with the report.

    Dr. Richard Garwin
    National Security Expert
    Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

NARRATOR: Physicist Richard Garwin helped develop America's hydrogen bomb. He was the only technical expert on the commission.

RICHARD GARWIN: We did the best we could with our limited charter. And we said, yes, indeed, these countries could within five years, if they had a well-financed program and external technical support from missile powers and high priority on their program- they could have an ICBM - which would be unreliable, inaccurate and very few - within five years or so.

NARRATOR: But the commission had addressed the threat, not the merits of missile defense.

[www.pbs.org: More on the Rumsfeld commission]

RICHARD GARWIN: I believe that the purpose of the commission. by those who had created it, was to establish a threat to advance the arguments for missile defense.

NARRATOR: Two weeks after its release, Garwin detailed in The New York Times his alarm at the congressional interpretation of the report's findings. "It would be foolhardy," he warned, "to base our security on a 21st century Maginot line."

The report's assumptions also troubled the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who viewed its key conclusion as an "unlikely development." Instead, they warned, "These rogue nations currently pose a threat to the United States ... through unconventional, terrorist-style delivery means."

Then, six weeks later, officers at NORAD spotted the tell-tale plume of a missile launch. In a test, North Korea had sent a satellite hurtling toward space, carried atop a rocket cobbled together from short-range Scud technology.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, Dir, Non-Prolif., Carnegie Endowment: It was called the Taepo Dong. It went about 1,300 kilometers, not very far for a missile. Couldn't hit the United States. But its impact was global.

NARRATOR: "God bless you, Kim Jong," Donald Rumsfeld told an audience from the National Defense University.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Immediately, it was seized upon as justification for the dire warnings of the Rumsfeld panel and proof that dictators of small, undeterrable countries could pose a threat to the United States with ICBMs with nuclear warheads.

NARRATOR: For the first time, North Korea had launched a three-stage rocket.

Rep. CURT WELDON (R-PA), Founder, Missile Defense Caucus: When North Korea launched their three-stage rocket, the CIA got caught again off guard. They weren't even aware the North Koreans had a capability for a three-stage rocket.

Gen. PATRICK HUGHES: It's not true. The details, technical details of some parts of the Taepo Dong flight were perhaps a surprise, but the basic configuration of the Taepo Dong missile and its basic capabilities were certainly well assessed by the U.S. intelligence community.

    Lt. General Patrick Hughes
    U.S. Army (Retired)
    Director, Defense Intelligence Agency

NARRATOR: General Patrick Hughes was in charge of Pentagon intelligence operations.

Gen. PATRICK HUGHES: We knew a great deal about the Taepo Dong missile, and we were- we had adequate, more than adequate centers and sources focused on the test. And everything that happened in that launch of the Taepo Dong missile, we gathered.

NARRATOR: The third stage had exploded. The satellite was destroyed. But the failed North Korean test would have a profound effect on U.S. policy. In a rare move, the intelligence community revised its 1995 estimate and finally gave Congress the worst-case scenario some lawmakers had been seeking.

Rep. CURT WELDON: The CIA publicly reversed itself and came to the conclusion that the threat from emerging capability from Iran, Iraq and North Korea was certainly going to be far earlier than the 15-year timeframe.

NARRATOR: The 1999 NIE adopted the Rumsfeld commission's standard for measuring the threat: instead of what was likely to happen, what could.

JANNE NOLAN, Nat'l Security Studies, Georgetown U.: The "It could happen" NIE was quite a shock. Judged against that kind of notion, there's very little that you can rule out. You could be hit by a meteorite.

NARRATOR: The political momentum continued to build. The Republican leadership pushed legislation that would make it official U.S. policy to deploy missile defense.

    Rep. DICK ARMEY (R-TX), House Majority Leader: [press conference] So through the efforts of this Congress, we woke up the nation to the threat and we woke up the government to the solution."

    Sen. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), Senate Majority Leader: [press conference] As we pray for the Lord to give us shield from the sun today, I believe our children will thank us in the future for giving them a shield against missile attack. So it's an honor for me to be here today for the enrolling of this-

NARRATOR: While the Clinton administration was embroiled in impeachment, missile defense was not an issue Democrats were eager to oppose. In the end, they amended and then voted for the Republican bill. Clinton quietly signed it. The stage and the stakes for the "hit to kill" tests he had authorized were set.

October 2nd, 1999. The teams on Kwajalein - renamed by Congress the Reagan Missile Test Site - were ready for the program's first shot at actually hitting a mock warhead.

7:02 PM Pacific Standard Time. The Vandenberg team launched the "enemy" target rocket out over the ocean. Nearly 22 minutes later and five time zones away, the rocket boosting the kill vehicle was fired.

7:32 Pacific Time. On closed-circuit television screens, a flash of light. A bullet, so it seemed, could hit a bullet.

In Washington, the Pentagon office responsible for evaluating all weapons systems knew it was not so simple. The director, Philip Coyle, had worked on nuclear warheads for Safeguard and lasers for Star Wars.

PHILIP COYLE: The missile defense programs that the Department of Defense is pursuing today are the most difficult thing they have ever tried to do.

    Philip Coyle
    Lawrence Livermore Natl Laboratory
    Assistant Secretary of Defense
    Director, Test & Evaluation

NARRATOR: A 40-year veteran of weapons testing - and a consultant to this FRONTLINE program - Coyle knew the kill vehicle had been given help.

PHILIP COYLE: There are artificialities in these tests, and critics have pointed out that they certainly look like cheating. For example, the target, the surrogate enemy target, that- the re-entry vehicle, has a sort of a beeper on it, a beacon that tells you where it is. It also has a Global Positioning System on it. Obviously, an enemy wouldn't tell you with a beeper, "Here I am." In an early test, there's nothing wrong with something like that. It's a surrogate for a forward-based early warning radar that we didn't have in the tests at that point and probably won't for many years.

NARRATOR: The kill vehicle also needed help in the single most critical technology of mid-course defense. It must be able to distinguish between a warhead and the swarm of decoys almost certain to be launched to disguise it. It is a task the kill vehicle will have 100 seconds to accomplish.

STEVEN WEINBERG: We've been trying to develop methods of discriminating decoys in warheads for many years. I worked on that in the mid-1960s. And it was hard then, and it's just as hard now.

    Dr. Steven Weinberg
    Nobel Prize, Physics 1979
    National Medal of Science 1991
    Professor of Science, University of Texas

NARRATOR: Physicist Steven Weinberg has long consulted with the government on defense matters.

STEVEN WEINBERG: We won't know what the offense will be. We may know the nature of the nuclear warhead, but we will not know what other things are sent along with the warhead in the form of decoys that will exhaust our defenses. I don't see how that problem can ever be solved.

[www.pbs.org: More on the technical hurdles]

NARRATOR: The simplest decoys, what the Pentagon calls "countermeasures," are Mylar balloons, like those sold in supermarkets.

RICHARD GARWIN, Sr. Fellow, Council on Frn. Relations: The balloon should be a big Mylar party balloon, maybe 10 feet in diameter, coated with aluminum foil, all packed up tight and inflated in flight. And it should be accompanied by empty party balloons the same size. The aluminum foil keeps the heat that's inside from getting out. You can't look into them with visible light.

They look the same to the interceptor. They look just the same to radar. It doesn't make any difference that one weighs a thousand pounds and the other one weighs ten pounds because, as Galileo made clear, if you have a feather and a lead shot, they drop at the same speed in a vacuum. And that's what we have out there, a lot of vacuum.

PHILIP COYLE, Dir, Test & Evaluation 1994-'01: Shooting down an ICBM is like hitting a hole in one when the hole on the green is going 15,000 miles an hour. And doing it when there are decoys is like hitting a hole in one when the hole's going 15,000 miles an hour and the green is covered with a bunch of other holes that look just like the one you're supposed to hit.

Gen. RON KADISH: There is 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. And we got to worry about that all the time.

    Lt. General Ronald Kadish
    U.S. Air Force 1970-present
    Director, Missile Defense Agency

NARRATOR: General Ron Kadish, long a top Air Force procurement officer, now heads the Missile Defense Agency.

Gen. RON KADISH: They will try to beat us. That's the whole idea behind warfare in the first place. I would not be so arrogant at this point in time to believe that this problem is insoluble- or soluble, for that matter.

RICHARD PERLE, Chmn, Defense Policy Board: The technological pessimists, by and large, have been wrong over the years. The things that were thought to be difficult, impossible - at least daunting - have been done, and they've been done in quite amazing ways. I'm not worried that we will lose the decoy business.

NARRATOR: But from the beginning, the program had experienced serious problems. The earlier fly-by tests included numerous decoys, but that had proved too difficult. So in the actual hit-to-kill tests, only one decoy, a balloon much larger and brighter, accompanied the dummy warhead. It was easy for the kill vehicle to recognize, made easier because a computer told it to look for the smaller of the two objects.

STEVEN WEINBERG, Nobel Prize, Physics: The decoys don't look at all like the warheads in these tests. This is not- these aren't realistic operational tests. You know, when the Army wants to test its strategic doctrines, wants to test its equipment, wants to test the abilities of its officers, they have maneuvers. And in the maneuvers, the blue team is not told in advance exactly what the red team is going to do. The 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.

NARRATOR: By the summer of 2000, only a few months were left in the_ Clinton presidency, and he had to decide whether to move from testing missile defense to deployment.

PHILIP COYLE: These tests were leading to a deployment decision, perhaps, by the president, years before the program would ever be ready for realistic operational tests such as most military equipment has to go through.

NARRATOR: In July, Coyle decided to travel to Kwajalein for what would likely be the last test before the president's decision. They had managed only 2 of the 20 or so planned tests, and the score was tied - one hit and then a miss.

PHILIP COYLE: For these tests, everybody goes into a underground bunker for some protection, and you basically watch the test on closed-circuit television. In the control center in Washington, General Kadish and others were watching the test from there.

NARRATOR: The Pentagon needed a success.

Gen. RON KADISH: 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, and whenever we fail to do those types of things, it's not a very pleasant experience. Four presidents and many Congresses have asked us to do this job.

PHILIP COYLE: The interceptor never got close enough to the target to hit it. It went way awry. When they first realized that the interceptor had missed, nobody could say anything. Everybody was stunned.

    Gen. RON KADISH: [in control center] Our radar sensors say that we didn't get the kill vehicle separation and so-

In the end, it's a tough problem and 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.

    We didn't get the expected behavior out of the interceptor.

[www.pbs.org: See an update on recent tests]

NARRATOR: Six weeks after the July test, Coyle's Office of Test and Evaluation issued a devastating 67-page critique. It detailed how the tests had been simplified to ensure the perception of success.

PHILIP COYLE: We basically concluded that, in our view, the program was not ready for deployment and wouldn't be for many, many years.

NARRATOR: The Pentagon refused for eight months, until threatened with a congressional subpoena, to release Coyle's report publicly. But it was delivered privately to the president.

    Pres. BILL CLINTON: [press conference] I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology and the operational effectiveness of the entire NMD system to move forward to deployment.

NARRATOR: He would defer the decision to his successor. But Bill Clinton had presided over the resurrection of missile defense.

George W. Bush assumed the presidency surrounded by advisers with shared experience and ideology on America's role in the world, as well as missile defense.

    DONALD RUMSFELD: [introducing President Bush] Our commander-in-chief, President George W. Bush.

NARRATOR: He named Donald Rumsfeld his secretary of defense. And from that moment, the administration's national security priority was settled: to make missile defense a reality by the end of the new president's first term.

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Several months ago, I asked Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to examine all available technologies and basing modes for effective missile defenses that could protect the United States, our deployed forces, our friends and our allies.

NARRATOR: On June 27th, 2001, Secretary Rumsfeld submitted an $8.3 billion request for missile defenses, the largest single weapons program in the Pentagon budget. On September 7th, 2001, the Senate Armed Services Committee tried to move $600 million into anti-terrorism efforts instead. Rumsfeld threatened a presidential veto.

Two days later, September 11th.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, Dir, Non-Prolif., Carnegie Endowment: I think the proponents of missile defense have a lot to answer for, in terms of why we were so unprepared for September 11th. Even when the heads of our intelligence agencies would come to Congress, as they did in February, 2001, and say that their greatest concern was the threat of a terrorist attack against the United States or United States interests that might result in mass casualties, the political agenda was skewed in another direction.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ, Deputy Secretary of Defense: Nobody, including at the CIA, estimated what suicide hijackers might do. I think it's a mistake to believe that we can predict or focus on one threat and ignore others. There's no question, if we build capable defenses against ballistic missiles, that's not the way people will attack us. They'll attack us with cruise missiles. They'll attack us through terrorists. We need to look at the whole thing in a balanced way.

NARRATOR: In the days and weeks after September 11th, Washington became a different place. Congressional voices were muted. And behind closed doors, the attacks were viewed by the administration as a mandate for the assertion of American power- unilaterally, if need be.

RICHARD PERLE, Chmn, Defense Policy Board: We're in a unique position. We can't have it both ways. We can't, on the one hand, say both to ourselves and listen to others say about us we are the world's only superpower, and then turn around and say our behavior has to be consistent with that of everyone else. So we have to do what we have to do.

NARRATOR: And that argument, according to a secret Pentagon planning document leaked to The New York Times, is key. The crash program to deploy a missile defense is seen as vital to maintaining the option to take offensive action. Put simply, the U.S. will be in a far better position to wield the sword if it has a shield in place.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: In a possible conflict with China - and much of missile defense is geared toward exactly this scenario. In a possible future conflict with China in 2020 or 2030, you better have a missile defense system that can neutralize any Chinese missiles or else the U.S. might back down in a conflict over Taiwan, over oil rights in the South Pacific, over Japan. And so missile defense is essential for that military mission, not just for an abstract defense of the United States.

NARRATOR: The fear is that the American public would be reluctant to support and the allies unwilling to join U.S. military action if a country like China or North Korea or Iraq could threaten a nuclear attack.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: If one thinks about how the crisis with Iraq 11 years ago might have played out if Saddam Hussein had the capability to threaten not only New York and Washington, but Tokyo or London or Paris, the capitals of our allies, it's entirely possible that it might have had a different outcome.

[www.pbs.org: Read his interview]

NARRATOR: On December 13th, the president gave a clear public signal that his administration was prepared to go it alone.

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Today I have given formal notice to Russia, in accordance with the treaty-

NARRATOR: He announced the unilateral break-out from the anti-ballistic missile treaty-

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: -from this almost 30-year-old treaty-

NARRATOR: A treaty considered by many to be the cornerstone of nuclear arms control. For the administration, it opened the way to a brave new world. It is a world that, so far, exists mostly in animations from companies with the contracts to build missile defense. Kill vehicles will be launched from ships. Satellites will hurl themselves at missiles to destroy them. Lasers will be fired from 747s circling high above enemy territory and from space.

Here on the ground in Alaska is the Pentagon's only chance to deploy a defense by 2004, and that is what President Bush has ordered. So they are building a site to continue testing Clinton's hit-to-kill defense.

Gen. RON KADISH, Dir, Missile Defense Agency: It's not a deployment, in the classic sense of a 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.

NARRATOR: To push the crash deployment, secretary Rumsfeld canceled the usual yardsticks measuring the progress of a new weapon. Missile defense will now be "capability-based." And that means technology, not the threat, will determine what is funded.

    Gen. RON KADISH: [press conference] We're going to provide the military decision-makers and users what we can produce and ask them a very simple question: "We can do this technically. Is this good enough for you to use?"

    REPORTER: Well, it sounds like a massive lowering of expectations and standards.

    Gen. RON KADISH: Not to me it doesn't.

    REPORTER: Because- I mean, how do I- how do I write this so that it doesn't sound like, well, they're spending this- more than they were last year, but now they've really lowered the bar in what they expect to get out of it?

    Gen. RON KADISH: Well, I just thought I'd increased the bar. If we succeed, people will write about the fact that it was a simple test and it's rigged. If we fail, it'll never work and we're wasting our money. So I'm going to go right down the middle on it.

NARRATOR: The Missile Defense Agency admits the Alaska system will not be foolproof. But the theory is: Start testing here, and if there is an emergency - a missile launched from a rogue state like North Korea - take a shot at it.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: It would be an almost ideal location to have a limited, ground-based defense of the United States. Frankly, I believe the knowledge that we have that capability may be a deterrent to the North Koreans to push their development too hard or too fast.

NARRATOR: In fact, since 1999, North Korea has on its own observed a moratorium on missile flight tests.

Critics call the Alaska test bed a "virtual defense," dictated by the political emergency to get something deployed. And, they add, it is being deployed against a virtual threat.

Gen. GENE HABIGER, Cmndr, Strategic Command '96-'98: We have many, many more things to worry about than the very unlikely probability of a missile from a rogue state coming across the horizon. I mean, if we're going to start allocating resources, let's start thinking about how we're going to control or monitor those tens of thousands of Conex containers that come into the United States on cargo ships every day- tens of thousands. All you have to do is build a nuclear device with a remote control trigger on it. And when that Conex container gets into lower Manhattan, you set it off. How do you protect against that?

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: That doesn't mean, therefore, we should leave the door open to a ballistic missile threat. If it were so obviously a useless thing to do, then I'd have to ask the question, why are the North Koreans sinking a large fraction of their limited national treasure in it? Why are the Iranians putting so many resources into it? Why is Saddam Hussein putting such an effort into it?

RICHARD GARWIN, Sr. Fellow, Council on Frn. Relations: I think that the ICBM threat from those three so-called rogue states is negligible, which means I can ignore it. So national missile defense against those three states is totally optional. If you feel compelled to have a missile defense because you've always said missile defense is necessary, go ahead, have a missile defense. But don't spend very much money on it.

    1st CONGRESSMAN: Would you be able to say in 2004 that you'd be able to shoot it down 10 percent of the time?

    Gen. RON KADISH: I don't know.

    1st CONGRESSMAN: Twenty percent of the time?

    NARRATOR: The tough questions about missile defense fall to the general ordered to make it a reality.

    1st CONGRESSMAN If the North Koreans were to launch one missile, after giving you a week's notice of where they were going to launch that one missile from and also informing you that there would be no decoys, just one missile- after $60 billion, what is the probability that you could shoot that one missile down?

    Gen. RON KADISH: Zero, as of today. However, if I might expand on that-

    1st CONGRESSMAN: Sure, because that's why you're here, sir.

    Gen. RON KADISH: If- if it- if we go according to our current plan, by the year 2004, it would be- it would be very much higher than zero. But I- but I would also point out that if we knew what time, what date and where the target was, I wouldn't even use missile defenses against that issue. My recommendation would be to take-

    2nd 1st CONGRESSMAN: You'd probably use a B-2 from Wightman Air Force Base to bomb it before- before it's shot.

Gen. RON KADISH: It would be, at that point, a lot more effective.

NARRATOR: In the end, it is the president who will face the most difficult question of all. When he contemplates U.S. military action against a foe that might threaten nuclear blackmail, can he rely on an unproven missile defense?

STEVEN WEINBERG: In trying to develop a missile defense system, which would have only a very dubious capability against threats which are not very plausible, and which, on balance, would hurt our security more than help our security, it seems to me that the administration is pursuing a program of missile defense carried on for its own sake, rather than for any application that it might have in defending our country.

Gen. RON KADISH: I think most of us would say, if we got a shot, we ought to take it. And 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. You won't be beaten all the time in the process. It's a war-fighting kind of mentality.

NARRATOR: In the decades-long political debate, the Bush administration has now prevailed. Congress has approved another $8 billion for missile defense, even though the chiefs of the military have testified they were not consulted on the matter. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the expanded system will eventually cost at least $200 billion. And the Pentagon has thrown a veil of secrecy over future tests. "The devil is in the details," complains one member of Congress, "and the details are now classified"

RICHARD PERLE: The prospect exists that, ultimately, there will be some dozens of nuclear powers, and many of them will have ballistic missiles. It may not be tomorrow. And if we leave ourselves without any defenses, we will become vulnerable to an increasingly large number of states. And some of us think it's just prudent to be able to counter those.

Gen. GENE HABIGER: Since 1985, the United States has spent $65 billion on national missile defense - $65 billion. We spent $45 billion for the B-2 bomber, but at least we got 21 bombers out of that investment. But we've received absolutely nothing for that $65 billion. Can we, as a nation, as we're fully engaged in the war on terrorism, afford $200 billion additional on a very unlikely threat? Doesn't make any sense. I think former senator Sam Nunn has said it best. National missile defense has become a theology in the United States, not a technology.

Missile Wars

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