On January 18, the Pentagon's second test of its national missile defense system (NMD), also known as the "Smart Rock," failed to hit its mark.
The Senate and House of Representatives both passed measures in March of last year to commit billions of dollars to the deployment of the NMD system as soon as technologically possible. And although January's test-the second in a series of three planned by the Pentagon-failed this time around, the Smart Rock system nonetheless boasts a formidable cheering section.
To defense industry lobbyists who have contributed huge sums of money to Bill Clinton-and, for that matter, to presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle-the Smart Rock represents the centerpiece in the Pentagon's relentless effort to both justify and inflate its already overblown budget.
A sort-of renovated relic of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative-also known as 'Star Wars'- the Clinton administration, left to its own devices, seems determined to go ahead with deployment of the Smart Rock system, possibly as early as this summer.
Recently, in an effort to put a positive face on the failed NMD experiment, State Department spokesperson James Rubin told reporters in Washington that, "the (Clinton) administration always understood that developing and testing a missile system like this in a relatively short period of time would be an enormously complex challenge." Rubin also said that (in testing the system), "essentially what you're trying to do is... shoot a bullet with a bullet... and having success when that bullet has a closing speed of 14,000 miles per hour... this is an enormously difficult challenge."
Rubin's words were less than comforting to scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The first test of the system took place back in October of 1999; it was billed a success because the missile managed to hit its target. But scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists say that hit was more likely attributable to dumb luck than to a "smart rock." In a real attack, the system would have to contend with simple but devastating countermeasures designed to confuse and overwhelm the defense.
For biological or chemical weapons, says UCS, the warhead can be readily divided into dozens or hundreds of small bomblets, or submunitions, that would be released from the missile early in flight. These numerous targets would overwhelm the planned NMD system. For nuclear weapons, which cannot be subdivided, a missile can carry a large number of lightweight decoys to defeat the defense.
"Trying to hit a single, bare warhead with a high-speed interceptor-which the current tests are assessing-is a difficult technical problem," said David Wright, physicist and senior staff scientist at UCS. "But it is a completely different problem than trying to get the system to work against countermeasures, which is what matters in the real world. Doing the first doesn't mean you can do the second... basing a deployment decision on the current tests makes no sense-it's the wrong criterion."
UCS says the tests are insufficient to prove operational effectiveness. They say three tests are simply "too few to determine reliability," and that the tests will not simulate realistic conditions of either the threat or the system itself. The test will use surrogate rocket boosters and seekers.
UCS and other defense experts have long-contended that the risks and costs of deploying this limited national missile defense system far outweigh the benefits.
"For the very first stage of the system, we're talking in the $24 billion dollar range," says Doctor Lisbeth Gronlund, physicist and senior staff scientist at UCS. "But that's just the first stage." Gronlund says the problem is, "as you get closer to actually building something, the costs always go up... I would be surprised if it could be built for less than $50 billion."
The Smart Rock, says Gronlund, "is supposed to destroy an incoming warhead by smashing into it." She said the US, "will launch a missile to launch the so-called kill-vehicle, which then guides itself to smash into the warhead... it's a heat-seeking device, so it needs to be able to sense heat from the warhead, and, in fact, that is what failed in the most recent test."
Gronlund notes the test failed because, "the sensors that were supposed to pick up the heat were not operating... for unknown reasons." She says the tests so far have not been representative of what would happen if the US were to actually come under attack by even a small number of missiles.
"The system is designed only to defend against a relatively small number of missiles, not against, for example, Russia's entire arsenal," said Gronlund. And, she says, "even proponents of the system want it to be able to defend against states like North Korea, who might in the future acquire long-range missiles (although) they don't currently have them."
Furthermore, says Gronlund, "any country with the wherewithal to build a long-range missile-and perhaps the nuclear warhead to go on it-would also be able to create countermeasures to defeat the missile defense system, which are much easier technically." She says the bottom line is that the US is both assuming a threat that is very capable on the one hand of being able to build long-range missiles, and yet, at the same time, not capable of doing simple things to fool or defeat the US missile defense."
And Gronlund isn't alone in her assessment.
Scientists and defense professionals all over the world have warned that inadequate testing could lead to disaster. UCS is joined by the Center for Defense Information and a host of international experts in its assertion that deployment of such a costly system would almost certainly undermine efforts toward deep nuclear weapons reductions. Russia-perhaps not coincidentally-recently threatened not to ratify START II, and China is likely to respond by expanding its arsenals as well.
Still, if the Clinton administration chooses deployment, the Smart Rock system could be operational by as early as the year 2005. The decision will be based on the results of the three intercept tests of the NMD, one of which has already failed.
Sandy Leon interviewed Doctor Lisbeth Gronlund of the Union of Concerned Scientists for KWMR Radio in Point Reyes Station. She is a freelance journalist and news/documentary producer. She has been a producer/reporter at Radio station KPFA in Berkeley for 15 years, and also hosts 'Global NewsBeat,' a news/public affairs program at Radio station KWMR in Point Reyes Station. Her work has been aired and distributed nationally by the National Radio Project's 'Making Contact,' a subsidiary of the International Radio Project.
HOW YOU CAN HELP: Contact your senators and tell them to urge the Clinton administration to decide against national missile defense deployment in 2000.
Tell them: The testing program is inadequate to determine actual effectiveness because of the limited number of tests and the use of surrogate parts. The system could be easily overwhelmed by relatively simple countermeasures, such as submunitions or decoys.
The impacts of a national missile defense system on international security outweigh any perceived benefits. Current nuclear reduction efforts would be undermined.
Be sure to include your name and return address in your letter.
If you would like to share your response with UCS, contact their Washington DC office at:
1616 P Street, NW, Suite 310
Washington, DC 20036-1495
UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS
2 Brattle Square
Cambridge, MA 02238
Contact us at [email protected]