The recent failed anti-missile test should not be seen as a failure of the science of ballistic missile defense. No, this failure should focus our attention on the Clinton Administration's lack of serious commitment to a national missile defense.
The facts are not hard to understand. In Friday's test, the "kill vehicle" that was supposed to destroy the enemy warhead failed to separate from the booster which launched it into space. This is not evidence that missile defense is beyond our technological reach. Separating one stage of a rocket from another was perfected in the 1950s. This failure was a little like driving home a brand new car only to find the door won't open. In other words, it was a gross quality control problem. Such problems lead us to look more closely at how technology is being used.
The most important and least understood fact concerning missile defense today is that the Clinton Administration deliberately employs various anti-missile technologies in the least efficient ways imaginable. Why? Because this White House considers the 1972 U.S.-Soviet ABM Treaty to be the cornerstone of U.S. security and has never believed in defending the United States from missile attack.
Consider the ground-based interceptor tested Friday. As configured by the Clinton Administration, the interceptor rocket is launched, guided by radar, and programmed to release a "kinetic kill vehicle" that has sensors on board that guide it to an interception with an enemy warhead.
Missile defense critics, such as MIT's Theodore Postol, charge that these kill vehicles cannot discriminate well between warheads and the decoys that inevitably would be employed by an enemy missile. Although the evidence suggests that they discriminate reasonably well, discrimination is in fact difficult using only radars and on-board sensors. This is one reason why no one in the scientific community believes that the Clinton system tested last week is the best way to stop an enemy missile.
If we are to intercept warheads from the ground or the sea at all, our interceptors must launch and discriminate on the basis of data from low orbit, heat-sensing satellites known as Space Based Infrared System-Low, or SBIRS-low. This constellation of 24 satellites will employ infrared technology to pick up the heat signature of any launched ballistic missiles around the globe, track them throughout their flight, and transmit data to whatever land or sea-based anti-missile system the U.S. chooses to deploy. But because these satellites would actually work to defend the entire United States, they violate the ABM Treaty. And it should come as a shock to no one that the Clinton Administration has dumbed down the proposed satellites and delayed the SBIRS-Low program by almost a decade.
Instead the Administration proposes deploying 20-100 interceptors, of the kind tested Friday, located next to a huge radar on the Alaskan island of Shemya. Unfortunately any ground-based radar, no matter how sophisticated, could not see incoming warheads until they came over the horizon. If they were coming into the U.S. east coast from the Middle East, Russia, or the Atlantic or the Caribbean, even the best imaginable interceptors could not be expected to hit them in time.
Why then spend billions of dollars and years on a radar — technologically inferior to satellites such as SBIRS-Low — that could not defend America? And why not have numerous interceptor bases, without cumbersome radars, close to possible targets? In short, why employ sophisticated technology to do things the hard way?
Again, the Clinton Administration intends to build a national defense that puts the ideology of the ABM Treaty ahead of saving the lives of Americans.
Ultimately, seriousness about missile defense means destroying not warheads, but missiles soon after they are launched, when they are slow, vulnerable, and un-decoyable. This is called boost-phase defense. Only it can deal with large numbers of missiles, and make it possible for warheads (especially chemical and biological ones) to be destroyed before they could be deployed. The Clinton Administration's action with regard to boost-phase defense shows most clearly that it is going about missile defense the hard way.
The only U.S. programs for boost-phase defense involve high-energy lasers. The Clinton Administration has crippled the space-based laser program and has devoted $11 billion to put lasers on Boeing 747 aircraft (air-borne lasers or ABLs) that would fly figure eight's near potential launch sites, waiting for missiles to be launched.
The ABL program is the poster child for doing things the hard way. Putting a laser weapon on an airplane, where it must overcome lack of vacuum and vibration, as well as endure atmospheric interference, is considerably more difficult than putting similar weapons in earth orbit, where no such difficulties exist. Moreover, while lasers in orbit would have constant, secure access to missiles launched from anywhere in the world, keeping a 747 on station over or near an undefeated enemy, never mind defending it, is itself an extremely difficult proposition.
Not even the Clinton Administration's spokespersons can conjure up the image of American 747s hovering over the interior of Iran. But the Administration wants laser weapons on 747s rather than in space not because of what the ABLs could do, but because of what they could not do — namely defend against missiles from Russia, China, or any other large country.
Remember that the American aerospace industry is the envy of the world. Unfortunately, the Clinton Administration has been guiding them down the path of inefficiency and failure. The time has come to call this fraud just what it is. The American people deserve a missile defense that will defend them, rather than the mere pretense of one.
Note: The Bush Administration gave its six month notice of withdraw from the ABM Treaty in December of 2001.