Countdown to national missile defense
- By Dan Verton, George I. Seffers
- Jul 03, 2000
A blue-ribbon panel recently concluded that a limited national missile defense
system is technically feasible. That's good news in light of a series of
intelligence reports that says the threat of a missile attack by a rogue
nation such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq is real.
But building a system that can detect, find, track and "kill" potentially
dozens of incoming warheads in space is the technological equivalent of
guiding the head of a pin directly into another from thousands of miles
And not everyone agrees that such a system is feasible. Some believe
a limited system can work. Others, however, think the entire proposition
is a pipe dream and a leftover from the Cold War and the Reagan administration.
But the nation may soon have a better idea about exactly what is possible.
On Friday the Pentagon will conduct the first full-scale trial of the national
missile defense (NMD) system.
Hitting the target, say military officials, will be a secondary consideration.
Ensuring that all of the command and control systems that detect, find and
track the incoming missiles can do their job is more important and remains
the toughest challenge, they say. The test will provide the clearest picture
yet of whether such a system is possible using existing technology.
"The key to this whole system working is the battle management system
that integrates all of the multiple sensors and the discrimination capability,"
said Jacques Gansler, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology
and logistics, at a Pentagon briefing June 20.
"It is truly a system of systems...each of which must communicate with
each other," said Gansler, speaking before the House Armed Services Committee.
"The technical challenges...are truly challenging."
Under a law passed by Congress and approved by President Clinton, the
Pentagon intends to deploy an NMD system by 2005 designed to counter dozens
of incoming missiles. In fact, the CIA has confirmed that North Korea currently
has the ability to hit the United States with a long-range missile. "It
is a major growing threat to the U.S.," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), chairman
of the House Armed Services Committee's Military Research and Development
Subcommittee, in a recent speech.
The system, estimated to cost a minimum of $36.2 billion, will use ground-based
interceptor missiles armed with "kill vehicles" designed to collide with
incoming targets in their trajectory outside the Earth's atmosphere. The
system also will use ground-based radars and satellite-based infrared sensors
to home in on their targets.
The Pentagon plans to deploy the system after at least four design reviews,
with improved capabilities being added and tested in each phase. The president
is scheduled to decide this fall whether to move ahead with full-scale deployment
of the NMD system.
Even if successful, however, the technologies will require further development.
And integrating the array of information systems will remain the toughest
"[The information technology] is a lot more robust than we would normally
expect at this time because we were working on it before we even had this
program, but we have a lot more work to do on it," said Air Force Lt. Gen.
Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO).
He added that although the technology is "pretty good the way it is," integrating
it and ensuring that it all works properly together remains a hurdle.
"That's why we've got this fundamental test subject. We're finally at
a point in time when all of these systems are mature enough to hook together
in a test, and that's what we're doing now," Kadish said.
The project also has to overcome tests in the political and academic
arenas, where critics of the project are not hard to find.
"The problem becomes more challenging as the number of objects increases,"
said John Pike, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.
"There is the risk that the [Battle Management Command, Control, Communications
and Intelligence] system could lose track of an object that it thought it
had discriminated, and then another sensor acquires it and has to discriminate
all over again."
The sheer complexity of the NMD system also means that system integration
will be a big challenge, said one expert, who believes the Pentagon already
has blown the opportunity to build NMD information systems designed from
the beginning to operate together. Instead, they will have to lash individual
systems together after the fact.
"I believe one of the critical features is integration and interoperability,"
said Stanley Orman, president of Orman Associates Inc., a Rockville, Md.,
consulting company. "Unfortunately, most designers still seem to subcontract
the design of subsystems — like the missile or the radars or the sensors — to individual companies and really don't do it from a top-down approach
from square one. There isn't an overall specification for the total system
before they build the subsystems."
The information systems that are scheduled for testing this week include
the space-based early-warning sensor; the ground-based early-warning, tracking
and discrimination radars; the Battle Management, Command, Control, Communications
and Intelligence system; the in-flight communication system; the interceptor
missile; and the kill vehicle. The kill vehicle rides atop booster rockets
before being fired at the incoming missiles like a bullet, destroying them
through sheer mass and speed.
Orman, the former director of the United Kingdom Strategic Defense Initiative
Participation Office, the British equivalent of BMDO, blasted BMDO for abandoning
its responsibility as prime integrator for the information systems.
"Under the original concept, BMDO would be the system integrator. Now
what happened is that they really acted as a pass-through for the money
and haven't done the main task, which is the integration and interoperability
of the systems," Orman said.
And without integration of the information systems, the NMD system will
not work, he argued. "They are now facing a very critical phase because
when you bring these subsystems together, they never interface the way you
would like them to, and you have to tweak the interfaces," Orman said.
Given the complexity of the system, any number of things might go wrong
in the test, Kadish told the House Armed Services Committee June 22.
Although this month's test will be considered a failure on a technical
basis if the interceptor does not knock the warhead out of the sky, the
Pentagon tends to find successes where others find failure and therefore
will likely move forward with the system regardless of the outcome.
"The question is whether it is technically feasible," Gansler said. "And
depending upon the types of failures, we may still be able to say it's technically
The upcoming test is the third in a series. The first was in October
to test the ability of the interceptor to discriminate between the target
and decoy; the second, in January, was an intercept test. The first was
considered a success; the second was not.
In the final five seconds of the second test, the cooling system of
the infrared sensor in the kill vehicle failed, and the missile missed the
target. Still, Pentagon officials point out that up until the critical last
few seconds, everything worked as planned.
Orman said the Pentagon's tendency to tout success where others see
failure is sometimes valid. "To the public, success is "smash, you hit it.'
I've designed and done some of these sorts of tests, and they are extraordinarily
complicated. It could get to within the very final closing stages and then
a thruster or something else could go wrong, and you have achieved 98 percent
of what you want to achieve, but to the public it's a failure."
The NMD system will be extraordinarily complicated, in part to deal with
possible countermeasures that are simple and effective enough to make the
system unworkable, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent
nonprofit alliance of scientists. The group released a report in April and
testified before Congress in early June that the NMD system will not work.
"The so-called national missile defense could be defeated by relatively
simple countermeasures designed to overwhelm or fool the system," said Joseph
Lach, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago.
Possible countermeasures to the NMD system, according to several experts,
* Arming missiles with such a large number of submunitions that interceptors
would be overwhelmed.
* Mixing genuine warheads and decoys that mimic the flight pattern,
infrared signatures or other characteristics of warheads.
* Having the warheads mimic characteristics of decoys.
* Launching a missile from a nearby location, such as Canada, Mexico
or an offshore ship, which would deny the system the response time it needs.
* Using a directed energy or electromagnetic pulse weapon to confuse
the NMD's electronic systems.
Although he would not provide details in a public hearing, Kadish told
lawmakers he believes the Pentagon has prepared for the electromagnetic
But Orman, who helped Great Britain develop a countermeasure system
against Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, said the Union of Concerned
Scientists missed the mark.
"It's a very complicated situation with countermeasures, made grossly oversimplified
with the Union of Concerned Scientists report. They have said anyone who
can design a missile can design countermeasures. That's a gross, gross oversimplification,"
he said. "There are always trade-offs with countermeasures. The more complex
the [NMD] system is, the more complex the countermeasures have to be."
What's more, the more countermeasures you add, the less room you have for
actual warheads, Orman argued. "It's easy to design decoys that mimic the
infrared signature or the radar reflection or the aerodynamic behavior or
the microwave reflection of a warhead, but when you try to put them all
together into one system, it is no longer simple."
The Union of Concerned Scientists said its analysis was anything but
simple. "Anyone who can build a long-range missile and weapons of mass destruction — which is not easy — can build effective countermeasures. Countermeasures
are simpler than missiles or weapons of mass destruction," said Tom Collina,
director of the organization's arms control and international security program.
The group evaluated three relatively simple countermeasures and concluded
that the midcourse NMD system, as it is now planned, would not defeat them.
Their conclusion: "The United States should reconsider its options for countering
the threats posed by long-range ballistic missiles and shelve the current
NMD plans as unworkable and counterproductive."
"We're not against a missile defense system," Collina said. "We're against
a national missile defense system that won't work."
The NMD also has come under fire from the General Accounting Office,
the investigative arm of Congress, which released a May report detailing
the plan's risks. The report said that the Pentagon has underestimated the
technical challenge of hitting an incoming target with an interceptor and
that only three of 19 planned intercepts would be performed before the critical
White House decision this fall.
GAO also said that none of the tests would include "the higher acceleration
and vibration loads of the much faster actual system booster," and that
the aggressive schedule is vulnerable to program delays and costs of up
to $124 million each month the program is delayed.
The Federation of American Scientists' Pike, a longtime NMD watcher,
said tests like the one scheduled for July 7 add a little more fidelity
to the system architecture concept each time they are conducted. However,
many questions remain unanswered, he said. "I remain unconvinced that really
high-fidelity simulation is in the cards, and totally unconvinced that anyone
would ever bet the country on this contraption," Pike said.