Photo by Myles RobinsonWe're all quite familiar with this horror story: one of the world's many "rogue nations" suddenly decides to lob one or a half-dozen nuclear missiles at the United States, which, like all nations, is powerless to prevent Los Angeles or San Francisco from disappearing beneath a radioactive mushroom cloud.
For the past 20 years, this scenario has been used to justify Star Wars, $95 billion worth of research into an immense constellation of radars, satellites and interceptors designed to protect the United States from missile attack. Originally envisioned by Ronald Reagan to shield the U.S. from an all-out Soviet attack, the program lived on long after Russia became democratic, consuming $44 billion in the past eight years alone.
Now President George W. Bush is calling for more research, more development and, most important, more money. According to the latest issue of the industry journal Defense Week, designing, deploying and maintaining the National Missile Defense (NMD) system Dubya wants will cost another $115 billion. How long it would take is anybody's guess.
This should be cause for alarm, especially since the last $100 billion spent has produced no prototypes and a string of test failures. But for those enlightened folks at the Los Angeles Times, more research money equals more big-time defense dollars for Southland contractors.
"The Bush administration's push to build a robust missile-defense system is a potent boost for Southern California, where dozens of companies are developing the key technologies for what could be one of the biggest military programs ever," Times reporter Peter Pae wrote in a May 2 story hardly deserving of its Page A1 status. "The preponderance of Southern California companies involved in missile defense is a reflection of the area's leadership in defense research and development, despite the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last decade."
Boeing, which is building parts for NMD satellites in Seal Beach, couldn't have written better propaganda. While briefly acknowledging "the debate over missile defense," Pae awarded the program a legitimacy that corporate public-relations money can't. Pae's complete discussion of NMD's efficacy consists of quoting without comment a TRW laser-project manager as saying, "The basic technology has been proven."
Not quite. Regardless of the Times' spin, missile defense has tremendous, nowhere-near-solved problems. And just to be sporting, let's ignore the very real possibility that all missile defense will do is deter aggressors from building missiles and force them to concentrate instead on smuggling nuclear, biological and chemical weapons into cities in suitcases or vans.
NMD consists of six separate systems —including various satellite trackers, ground-based radars and interceptors—all of which must work perfectly. The defense network must intercept everything: anything less than a 100 percent interception rate means some major U.S. city has been destroyed.
And so far, tests haven't been encouraging. Two of three interception tests have so far failed, with the third listed only as a "qualified success." This is hardly surprising, especially when you consider that the target of interception —the warhead itself—is a diminutive cone six feet long and not quite two feet wide at the base.
And that's just your basic Defend America system. The Army is testing its own battlefield missile-defense shield and has an even longer string of test failures to brag about. The Navy—which has feared being left out of the next war since 1945—wants to put anti-missile batteries on its destroyers and then deploy them to patrol rogue-nation coastlines as a kind of floating Maginot Line.
Then there's the Air Force, which sees laser-armed 747s as an extra step in the whole global missile-defense network. Plans are to deploy seven of these monsters by 2009. Based in the U.S., they would fly near enemy nations during war and blast missiles during their "boost phase," while they're still over the territory that launched them.
Contrary to TRW's assurances to the Times, the lasers—still being tweaked at TRW's South County facility—are far from finished. The Air Force says it has solved the problem of water vapor in the air causing turbulence that disrupts the laser, but that's academic because the laser has never been tested under actual battlefield conditions.
Even if all this works—if the Navy gets its floating missile batteries, and the Air Force gets all its satellites and radars and interceptors and missile-blasting 747s, and everything is fine-tuned and checked and re-checked and just works smashingly, and another hundred billion dollars is blown—we still may be vulnerable to enemy missile attack. That's because of a single word: discrimination.
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Let's envision a new horror story: an enemy nation launches 15 missiles at the U.S. But 12 of the missiles aren't carrying anything other than enough ballast to give them the same weight and balance as those carrying actual nuclear warheads. Interceptors and lasers go into action but quickly exhaust themselves on the decoys, allowing the real missiles to get through. Just one would be enough.
Briefing papers put out by the Washington, D.C.-based thinktank Center for Defense Information (CDI) make clear that no one at the Pentagon has yet figured out how any type of missile-defense system can discriminate between legitimate warheads and decoys. That means any system will have to spend as much time and effort targeting dummy missiles as the real thing just to be safe. But, like Russian roulette, the more bullets there are in the chamber, the higher the chance you'll get killed when you pull the trigger.
"Discrimination looks easy when you do it on paper," retired Lockheed chief scientist Michael Munn told CDI. "But you get up there, and you never see what you expect—data never agree with the predictions. The only way to make it [the testing] work is to dumb it down. There's no other way."
Getting big papers like the Los Angeles Times to ignore the problem entirely helps, too.