May 31, 2004
Anti-missile defenses–“SDI,” “Star Wars”–kick into gear
JOHN J. MILLER
Fort Greely, Alaska
When Lt. Col. Gregory Bowen was growing up in North Dakota, he and his buddies would go deer hunting near the town of Nekoma. Occasionally they came across a huge structure that looked like a pyramid. “I thought it was part of an old military base that had been downsized,” says Bowen. Later on, he learned of the abandoned site’s true purpose: The pyramid had been a radar antenna, and for a short time the facility surrounding it had housed Safeguard, America’s first and only missile-defense system. No sooner were Safeguard’s interceptors declared operational in 1975 than Democrats in the House of Representatives yanked their funding. A few months later, Ted Kennedy led the Senate in doing the same. Safeguard died in its infancy.
But things are different now. Sometime in the next few months, Bowen will take command of the key element in America’s brand-new missile-defense system: six interceptors sitting in silos at Fort Greely. They haven’t been loaded into the ground yet, but in the coming weeks they will be. Then they’ll network with early-warning satellites in orbit, high-powered radars at the far western end of the Aleutian Islands, and generals bunkered beneath Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs. Another four interceptors will be stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Ten more will come on line at both Greely and Vandenberg next year, perhaps followed by even more after that. All together, this array of weapons and gadgets will offer what the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency circumspectly calls “a modest defense against the limited, near-term ballistic missile threat” — which is to say, nuclear blackmail from the likes of North Korea.
REAGAN’S VISION IN TODAY’S ALASKA
Ever since Ronald Reagan called for the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, conservatives have searched for ways to realize his vision, and naysayers have sought to trash it as a con job they’ve labeled “Star Wars.” After more than two decades of budget battles, military research, and public debate, a rudimentary form of national missile defense is finally being created. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that it took so long. Most people forget that when Reagan first spoke of SDI in a television address, he wasn’t talking about short-term goals: “It will take years, probably decades of effort on many fronts.”
Indeed it has, though the delays have had more to do with politics than technology. From a diplomatic standpoint, America’s commitment to the ABM Treaty made it impossible to build a robust missile-defense system or even conduct serious testing in preparation for one. From a funding perspective, missile defense survived on what few crumbs the Clinton administration deigned to throw at it, which it did only because of pressure from congressional Republicans.
The election of George W. Bush changed everything. In 2002, he called defending the United States against ballistic missiles “my highest priority as commander-in-chief and the highest priority of my administration.” He quit the ABM Treaty and poured money into missile defense. For 2005, the White House is asking Congress for about $10 billion, which is roughly three times the typical budget request during President Clinton’s tenure.
There are, of course, a lot of people in Washington who think missile defense is a very bad idea. Most of them are Democrats, and one of them is the junior senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry. He has voted against funding missile-defense programs no fewer than 50 times since entering the Senate in 1985. “The missile shield that could defend the United States against any incoming missile is a fantasy,” he said three years ago.
Fantasy is becoming reality at Fort Greely, where a sign by the entrance advertises a familiar battlefield principle: “Secure the high ground.” This time, however, the reference isn’t to a hill or a ridge, but something astronomically higher. That’s because ICBMs charging around the globe operate above the atmosphere, in outer space — and that’s where Greely’s interceptors are designed to obliterate them.
During World War II, Fort Greely was home to an airfield used for transporting U.S.-built fighter planes to the Soviet Union as part of the lend-lease program. Today, it’s an ideal location for basing anti-ballistic missiles because the shortest distance between North Korea — or China or Siberia — and the west coast of the Lower 48 is a route above the north Pacific. Groundbreaking for Greely’s missile-defense facilities occurred two years ago, a few months after Bush announced his decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The goal all along has been to deploy a handful of interceptors before the end of 2004, but construction sprinted ahead of schedule during the fairly mild winter of 2002-03. Although many military timetables experience setbacks and postponements, this one was advanced. The system might be turned on as early as July.
The winters aren’t always so agreeable in the Alaska interior, of course, which is why Greely’s missile silos have undergone all-weather testing. “We want the system to operate under every possible condition,” says the man tasked with preparing the site for activation, Army Col. Kevin Norgaard. (If Dickens were creating a character who had anything to do with missile defense in Alaska, he might name him Col. Norgaard.) In February, crews compacted 29 feet of snow atop the clamshell doors of one silo to see if they could function in a blizzard. The goal was for them to snap open in 1.75 seconds. During the trial, they finished with more than half a second to spare.
The folks who will operate the interceptors at Greely won’t be full-time soldiers, but members of the Alaska National Guard. “That’s appropriate, because homeland security is one of the Guard’s responsibilities,” says Bowen, himself an active-duty Guardsman. “Our tradition goes back to the Minutemen, and missile defense is the essence of homeland security.” There’s a cost-benefit factor as well. Missile defense is what Pentagon bureaucrats call a “low-density system” — basically, it’s one of a kind. So rather than build a whole infrastructure to accommodate troops as they rotate in and out of Greely every few years, the military will train a small number of Guardsmen who will stick around for longer stretches. There’s also the morale factor: It takes a certain kind of person to live in the hinterlands of Alaska, especially during the dark winter months. The missile defenders of Greely, however, haven’t been assigned to hardship tours in the 49th state; they’ve chosen to make their homes there.
If they ever need to use the interceptors, they won’t have much time to pause and reflect upon the meaning of it all. An ICBM requires no more than half an hour to reach the U.S. from Asia — and a successful counterattack from Greely would have to strike about halfway through this journey, when an ICBM is in its “midcourse” phase of flight (rather than its “boost” or “terminal” phases). After satellites detect a hostile launch and radars begin to plot the trajectory, the ABMs have to shoot out of their silos within minutes, blast into space, and smash into their target at speeds so fast that engineers liken the technical challenge to hitting a bullet with a bullet. The interceptors carry no explosives — they destroy ICBMs with the raw kinetic energy of a supersonic collision.
At a time when the menace of Islamic terrorism appears to eclipse most other dangers, ICBMs seem positively old school — they’re so Cold War. Yet they remain a significant threat to national security. In 1998, North Korea lofted a missile called the Taepodong 1 over Japan, demonstrating a prowess in rocket science that few had appreciated. In May, South Korean newspapers reported that Pyongyang was preparing to deploy a new missile that puts Hawaii within range. Seattle and Los Angeles can’t be far behind. (Last year, in fact, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, speculated that a three-stage Taepodong 2 missile could go the distance.) With the advent of missile defense, of course, Americans confronted with an incoming warhead courtesy of Kim Jong Il will have an option to do something other than pray it misses.
THREATS NEW AND OLD
The enemies of missile defense have tried to capitalize on intelligence failures in Iraq to suggest that current threat assessments aren’t accurate. Apparently they would prefer to wait for North Korea — or Iran, or some future rogue state — to produce evidence of its advanced ICBMs and then think about addressing them, probably through “engagement” rather than deterrence.
Even so, the current missile-defense system is still too weak to deal with the biggest threats. There won’t be enough missiles at Greely and Vandenberg to defend the United States against, for example, a full-blown attack from Russia. China, which is believed to possess a relatively meager arsenal of about two dozen ICBMs, would overwhelm the system as well. So this new batch of interceptors is clearly limited — but it is potent enough to protect the U.S. from one potential foe. “The North Koreans should be very wary of our capability,” says Air Force Lt. Gen. Ron Kadish, head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. “I wouldn’t put the new system on alert if I didn’t think it could do the job.”
Even though Kerry was one of 97 senators who voted for the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, which calls for deploying a missile-defense system as soon as the technology is available, he upholds all the conventional opposition arguments. “It is too expensive,” he has said. Yet the Bush administration’s latest budget request represents less than 3 percent of all defense spending. This hardly seems exorbitant, especially considering the catastrophic cost of not having missile defenses when they’re truly needed. What’s more, Kerry has proposed spending more than $1 trillion on a variety of new and expanded government programs. So why is he such a penny-pincher when it comes to missile defense?
Cost isn’t what really bugs him about the program. “It won’t work. And [it] will drive an arms race,” he has said. Yet this is incoherent. If missile defenses won’t work, then why would they drive a new arms race? It would seem that only one of these two possibilities could be true. Or, as recent experience suggests, they might both be false. Missile defense is becoming a proven technology. Five of the last eight test flights have resulted in successful intercepts. There are many more tests to come, including two later this year, and over time they will do nothing but improve the system’s capabilities. What’s more, Bush’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty and deploy interceptors doesn’t seem to have panicked the Russians. They’ve actually agreed to reduce their missile stockpiles. So much for a harrowing new arms race. And rather than serving as a showcase for American unilateralism, missile defense has become an occasion for international cooperation. Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, India, and Japan have indicated their desire to work with the U.S. on the technology. The Chinese may not be happy about any of this, but then the purpose of missile defense isn’t to please Peking.
There’s one final charge that Kerry’s camp makes concerning the upcoming deployment: It’s about politics, and the crass desire to score a few points against arms-control liberals just before the election. Yet this is silly, too. It suggests that Bush shouldn’t power up a system that’s ready to go because most Americans will approve of his decision and perhaps let it influence how they vote. Apparently that’s just not fair, because it jeopardizes Kerry’s chance to come into the White House and unplug the program before the public even knows it exists.
The outcome of the election may determine the fate of national missile defense: Safeguard or vanguard, i.e., either it goes down the dead-end path of that old relic in North Dakota or it sits in the forefront of a future full of sea-based interceptors, airborne lasers, and, ultimately, space-based defenses. The re-election of Bush would virtually guarantee that the next great debate over missile defense will move beyond the limited deployment of ABMs at Greely and Vandenberg — Democrats may simply concede the matter — and refocus on the so-called weaponization of space.
John Kerry knows this, and he’s been preparing. Space-based weapons, he says, are “very disturbing.” He has proposed “to offer the world the potential of a treaty that says, ‘We will only use space for peaceful purposes.'” Kerry presumably wouldn’t decommission the hundred or so military satellites the United States currently has in orbit, even though they really aren’t up there for “peaceful purposes.” He also probably doesn’t intend to ban all weapons from space, because ICBMs that leave the atmosphere are space weapons (as are the ABMs that track them down). What he actually means is that he won’t stand for weapons to be based in space, including the defensive ones that just about every missile-defense advocate believes the U.S. ultimately will want to develop. These could include everything from lasers that attack ICBMs moments after they’ve launched to miniature satellites (sometimes called “Brilliant Pebbles”) that slam into enemy missiles during their midcourse flight. No country exploits space for military advantage as effectively as the U.S., and it is decidedly not in our national interest to volunteer concessions in this arena, as Kerry is promising.
At Fort Greely, Lt. Col. Bowen doesn’t have much time to contemplate the science-fiction future military strategists are dreaming up. He’s got half a dozen interceptors to worry about and wants to make sure his team of National Guardsmen is ready to defend America. When he gets a chance, however, he hopes to do a little hunting in Alaska, perhaps for bear. That’s a lot different from stalking deer near his boyhood home in North Dakota. “Up here,” he says, “if you don’t hit what you aim at, it will eat you.” He can say that again.