The Rocket Boys

by John J. Miller on July 2, 2009

in Articles,Politics

  • SumoMe

October 25, 1999



Inside the rear of a tan Army Hummer, a technician sat in a black swivel chair and stared at a computer screen. It was still dark out at 5:19 in the morning, local time, but he could see everything in the skies above the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Bright green lines outlined neighboring states and marked friendly units on his electronic map. Suddenly, a red triangle blipped onto the monitor. A radar positioned nearby had picked up an object launched from the north. The computer quickly identified it as a threat and calculated its course. The man lightly touched a black trackball attached to his keyboard, moved a pointer on the screen to the triangle, and clicked.

A missile blasted into the pre-dawn sky, launched from a canister mounted on a truck a few hundred yards away. It broke the sound barrier several times over as it roared upward. In a matter of seconds, it was miles above the desert floor. A booster rocket burned up and blew off, leaving only a five-foot-long kill vehicle hurtling toward its target. Then a shroud at its tip fell away to reveal an infrared seeker. The missile literally opened its eyes and spotted its goal: a Hera rocket simulating a Scud. A few thrusts from motors on the interceptor’s side set the two projectiles on a collision course. They hit head-on, sparking a brief but brilliant flash. Then darkness returned to the sky. Except for a few small scraps of twisted metal plummeting downward, nothing was left. The missiles had vaporized. On the ground, 40 miles below, people cheered.

In that moment, a missile-defense program lingering at death’s door found new life. A long record of failure had made the Army’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) look like a billion-dollar boondoggle. Even the program’s strongest supporters were starting to wonder whether THAAD (which rhymes with “dad”) was terminally flawed. Its enemies took perverse delight in its difficulties, comparing missile defense to the quixotic pursuit of cold-fusion power. The Pentagon, by many accounts, was getting ready to pull the plug. But a team of engineers persevered with the help of corporate, military, and political allies. The test flight on June 10 was a moment of glory for them, reversing years of frustration. “We didn’t just hit it in the bull’s-eye,” says Ed Squires, THAAD’s program manager at Lockheed Martin. “We hit a ten-ring in the black.”

More important, THAAD’s success demonstrated that the United States has the technical know-how to defend itself against ballistic-missile attacks. THAAD probably won’t reach the field for seven or eight years, but the engineers behind the June intercept achieved a signal success in the country’s struggle to build a comprehensive missile-defense system. “Test Flight 10 will be remembered as the most significant milestone in missile-defense development this decade,” says Army Lt. Gen. David K. Heebner.

That might never have happened if Squires and his team of rocket boys had not seized control of the troubled program last year. THAAD was built by dozens of companies, but its ultimate success depended on a handful of engineers in Building 151, an anonymous gray-and-white structure on the Lockheed Martin campus in Sunnyvale, Calif. “We knew the technology would work,” says Army Maj. Gen. Peter C. Franklin, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. “It was simply a matter of Lockheed Martin putting the right people in place to look at the hardware.”

Well, there was more to it than that. Even now, missile defense has its enemies. The very idea is anathema to many of those presently in charge of American national security. Test bans and international monitoring, they think, will keep the United States safe. An aggressive missile-defense strategy would merely encourage a worldwide arms build-up. One of the first things they did following President Clinton’s inauguration was change the name of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. “They were downgrading its importance,” says a former member of the organization-“and trying to repudiate Ronald Reagan.” It was Reagan, after all, who had proposed an ambitious missile defense in his March 23, 1983, speech.

The THAAD program won’t provide the kind of broad anti-missile coverage that defense hawks have craved since Reagan addressed the nation. It’s a theater system rather than a national system, meaning that it targets short- and medium-range ballistic threats rather than intercontinental ones. It couldn’t defend a territory the size of the United States from a missile launched on the other side of the globe, but it could protect troops in South Korea or a country the size of Israel or Taiwan from a neighbor. That makes THAAD a vital member of the family of missile-defense systems now on the Pentagon’s drawing board. There will eventually be more glamorous weapons, such as airborne lasers and bigger and faster interceptors with longer ranges (such as the missile tested successfully over the Pacific Ocean on October 2). But today, THAAD is the most sophisticated piece of America’s embryonic missile-defense network-a network that has survived thanks largely to political pressure from conservatives.

The need for THAAD became more obvious than ever during the Gulf War. Scud missiles allowed Saddam Hussein to sit in his underground bunker and terrorize Israel and Saudi Arabia. Although Patriot missiles were initially celebrated for their ability to disable Scuds, later assessments revealed that the defensive umbrella they were supposed to provide actually leaked like a sieve. On February 25, 1991, a Patriot failed to knock out a Scud heading for Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. It slammed into American barracks, killing 28 soldiers.

Congress and President Bush responded by calling for a missile-defense system that would protect American troops from ballistic threats. From the start, however, Clinton administration officials have suggested that THAAD violates that linchpin of Democratic arms-control ideology, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. They have even forced the system to downgrade its radar performance-despite no complaints about it from Russia. In 1996, the White House stripped THAAD of $ 2 billion because of its early problems, ignoring the fact that test programs must go through a trial-and-error process. THAAD became a rallying point for opponents of national missile defense. As Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts put it last March, “THAAD is much simpler to develop” than national missile defense; so if it doesn’t work, how can larger programs possibly succeed?

THAAD’s first three flight tests, all in 1995, went well. But they were easy. They didn’t even try to hit a target. Instead, they demonstrated launch capabilities, booster separation, and radar performance. By the third one, most of the system functioned properly. It was at last time to shoot something out of the sky.

That’s when the problems began. For three and a half years, THAAD would hit nothing. During Test Flight 4, in December 1995, a software error caused the missile to veer off course and run out of fuel. The following March, in Test Flight 5, an electrical harness didn’t disengage properly, and the missile self-destructed in flight. In July, THAAD’s heat-seeker failed to spot its target. Eight months later, a motor failure led to another miss. The program stopped testing for more than a year and underwent an extensive review. Then it launched Test Flight 8 in May 1998-but a short circuit in the booster rocket caused the missile to lose control. It self-destructed six seconds after takeoff. Five misses in 29 months.

With each miss came a flurry of statements from professional Doubting Thomases at disarmament groups. “Maybe Mother Nature’s trying to tell us something,” said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, absurdly. For THAAD supporters, these were bleak days. “This latest failure was unpardonable,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, after Test Flight 8. Lockheed Martin agreed to pay up to $ 75 million in fines if it continued missing, and the Pentagon considered canceling its contract with the company outright. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration showed that it had more faith in the ABM treaty than in its own missile program, volunteering all sorts of information about THAAD and other weapons to the Russians without receiving anything in return. “They thought they were being good neighbors,” says one former member of the American treaty team. “But you have to believe these people get ripped off every time they buy a car or house.”

An independent review suggested that THAAD’s design was sound, but that Lockheed Martin’s poor quality control allowed a series of low-tech bugs to escape detection. The company brass decided it was time for a management change. Enter Ed Squires, a Lockheed Martin engineer with a history of helping to fix dying programs. A tall man with bright blue eyes and a Louisville twang, Squires is modest to the point of discomfort at the slightest hint of praise. He bristles at the suggestion that he saved THAAD. For his first interview with National Review, he insisted on surrounding himself with four colleagues so each could share credit. Yet THAAD supporters routinely laud Squires for reviving the program. “Lockheed Martin basically bet a portion of the company on him,” says Army Lt. Gen. Paul Kern, one of the Pentagon’s top acquisitions officers. Squires, however, praises his predecessors, the people who oversaw the five straight misses. “We learned something on every one of those flights,” he insists. “The public tends to think it’s useless when you miss a target, but that’s not true.”

Squires knew that, on paper, THAAD was an impressive system. It operates from the backs of four Hummers linked by cables. Its mobile radar is strong enough to sit in Washington, D.C., and spot a basketball hovering over Chicago. Computers determine the trajectories of incoming missiles and decide which are worth hitting. If one is headed for open water or a deserted area, THAAD may not want to waste a shot. THAAD also has “look-shoot-look” capability, allowing it to fire on targets at a distance great enough to permit one or two follow-up shots in the event of a miss.

The interceptor is launched from a ten-missile canister mounted on the back of an all-terrain vehicle the size of a fire truck. Each of the vehicle’s ten big wheels is articulated for sharp turns and skirting through minefields. A hydraulics system raises the launch platform skyward; after ten shots, the canister is cast aside like an empty shotgun shell, and the truck reloads itself from a trailer without the help of other vehicles. A THAAD missile launch is so hot that soldiers must move several hundred feet away from their truck to avoid incineration.

The 19-foot missile actually saves its greatest thrust for when it’s several hundred feet in the air and won’t burn up the truck launcher below. A single-stage rocket engine hurls the missile upwards. Its top elevation is classified, but during Flight Test 11 in August it soared more than 60 miles above the ground. “It can go many times higher,” says Col. Patrick O’Reilly, the Army’s THAAD project manager. The missile acquires all of its momentum from this booster, which pushes the five-foot kill vehicle to supersonic speeds before separating.
The kill vehicle, the part of the missile designed to slam into a target and destroy it, is at once the simplest and most complicated part of the system. It contains no explosives, relying instead on the raw kinetic energy of its high speed to obliterate a ballistic missile. With an infrared seeker and directional thrusters, the kill vehicle homes in on its target. Just as the best way to break a rack in pool is to shoot the cue ball slightly off center, THAAD prefers an aimpoint just down from the target’s tip. A hit there ensures maximum lethality. It’s also where the warhead is kept, including any payload of nuclear, biological, or chemical devices.

Squires worked on THAAD for almost a year before running his first flight test. The stakes were high, with Lockheed Martin ready to pay millions back to the government for another failure. THAAD’s enemies were sharpening their knives. Then last March, Squires watched the skies above White Sands in anticipation. His missile blasted upwards. He waited for the intercept, which should have come in about two minutes. The flash of light never materialized. THAAD had missed its target by about 30 feet.

The culprit was another motor failure in the kill vehicle. THAAD came under more pressure than ever before. The government sent Lockheed Martin a bill for $ 15 million. Liberals took to the floor of Congress. “Hit-to-kill technology is nowhere near feasible,” said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin. Both the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin were encouraged by the near miss, but THAAD was becoming desperate for a hit.

Squires returned to Sunnyvale and his office, with its odd decorations-dramatic photos of rockets and missiles in the company of Monet reprints. “You have to learn from the mistakes,” he explained to his team. “I know it’s hard to show up for work the morning after a failure, but we have to get another one of these up right away.”

That day came on June 10, when THAAD smashed into the rocket high in the atmosphere. An even tougher test occurred two months later, with THAAD targeting a missile in outer space-a much more complex shot. But on August 2, THAAD became the first field-ready missile system to hit a ballistic target above the atmosphere. “I guess today is probably one of the watershed events in the technological history of our country, because today . . . we basically hit a bullet with a bullet in outer space,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish at a press briefing.

The rocket boys will now spend the next several years focusing on reliability and production. Their challenges are far from over. Shortly after their success in outer space, Pentagon official Philip E. Coyle III labeled the tests “scripted”-a quote the Los Angeles Times trumpeted in a front-page headline on August 24. Later, however, Coyle retreated from this characterization-a correction that the Times duly failed to note. Also in August, Scientific American surrendered six of its pages to an article written by arms-control lobbyists called “Why National Missile Defense Won’t Work.” It made no mention of the latest THAAD tests. The system is facing budget hurdles, too: This summer, the House Appropriations Committee reduced its funding. Many of the program’s supporters believe the money will soon be restored, but they’re puzzled that THAAD, previously punished for failure, is now apparently guilty of success.

Opinion polls suggest that most Americans believe that the United States already has missile-defense capabilities. If the formidable opponents of missile defense have their way, the public will continue to be mistaken. If programs like THAAD are given enough support, however, they will eventually-perhaps within the next ten years-prove the people right.

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