Going back to 'Star Wars'

Print edition : August 04, 2001

The Bush administration goes beyond its predecessor's 'limited' National Missile Defence system, enlarging the proposal to get closer to Ronald Regan's 'Star Wars' concept. Will the weaponisation of space thus become a reality?

ON July 14, a modified Minuteman II Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) was launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Carrying a mock warhead and a decoy balloon, it was intercepted in mid-course by the "kill vehicle" of a prototype interceptor missile and destroyed by impact about 225 km over the Central Pacific Ocean. This was the fourth in the series of intercept tests, but only the second successful one, carried out by the Ballistic Missile Development Organisation (BMDO) of the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) as part of the development of the controversial missile defence shield.

The announcement by the BMDO on July 15 claimed that the test had been successful. In particular, it had demonstrated the ability of the "hit to kill" technology to differentiate between a warhead and a decoy, an issue widely contested by critics based on data from past tests and held by them as an argument for the unworkability of the very idea of a nationwide missile shield. But, more significantly, the present test also marks a paradigm shift in the approach of the Bush administration to the missile defence system concept from the former President Bill Clinton's "limited" National Missile Defence (NMD) system, comprising 100 ground-based interceptors.

While the "geometry" and the "mechanics" of the July 14 test were stated to be identical to the tests last year, "a lot of new software has been developed for use in a variety of systems," according to the DoD spokesman. "Tonight's test," said the DoD's press release after the test, "is part of a robust and on-going testing programme that is a layered approach to defence, using different missile architectures to deter the growing threat of ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction."

For some reason, this statement, and the statements made by key officials of the U.S. administration preceding the test, have not elicited any strong comments or reactions from the critics and nations opposed to the U.S. proposal. Bush has sought to enlarge the system concept to include sea-based and space-based interceptors, as well as the use of kinetic energy and beam weapons. The proposal is thus moving closer to the original "Star Wars" concept of the Reagan administration and weaponisation of space may well become a reality. The apprehension of many people when Donald H. Rumsfeld was appointed the Defence Secretary in the Bush administration, that weaponisation of space would happen earlier than later, may well turn out to be true.

The July 14 event, however, tested only the land-based interceptor part of the missile defence system. The interceptor had been launched from the Ronald Reagan Missile Site at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of Marshall Islands, about 7,700 km away in the Central Pacific, 20 minutes after the launch of the ICBM. About 10 minutes after the launch, the "kill vehicle" sought the warhead and destroyed it. The "kill vehicle" is essentially a small but heavy payload (weighing about 50 kg) and moves at a very high speed of about 25,000 kilometres an hour after separation from the booster of the interceptor missile rocket. It uses its on-board infra-red sensors and data from ground based radar and sensors to differentiate between the incoming missile warhead and decoy and manoeuvres itself to meet the warhead head on and destroy by collision.

The first intercept test, claimed by the BMDO to be successful but criticised by the scientific community for data rigging, took place on October 3, 1999. The second test on January 19, 2000, failed because of "a clogged cooling pipe in the kill vehicle". The third test on July 8, 2000, also failed because the "kill vehicle" did not separate from the booster rocket (Frontline, August 4, 2000). In all, 19 intercept tests have been planned by the BMDO. Given the unproven nature of the technology, Clinton put off the decision to deploy the missile defence system.

By this decision of September 1, 2000, Clinton, although committed to eventual deployment of a "limited" NMD, had deferred the deployment decision as well as the construction of the X-band radar in Alaska that would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the former Soviet Union and the U.S., to the new administration. The deployment of a missile defence system is, however, top priority for the Bush administration, thus fulfilling his election campaign promise. The exact mechanics and time-table for deployment are still evolving, according to the BMDO, the key to which will be the Defence Secretary's pending report on national security strategy by December and the on-going negotiations with Russia to bring President Vladimir Putin around from his current firm stand to stick by the ABM Treaty which is in conflict with the proposed missile defence system.

Indeed, Bush's enlarged missile defence concept - which he has called a "multilayered" system - will no longer be called NMD; it will be simply Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system which will include under its umbrella various scenarios and schemes of missile defence, as well as different systems of architecture, as against the single ground-based approach of the previous administration. Besides, providing a nationwide missile shield to the 50 states of the U.S. territory, the new system includes Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) and other missile defence concepts as part of a single system.

"Other alternatives to a ground-based system will be explored in the months and years ahead," Craig Quigley, the DoD spokesman, told a Pentagon press briefing in the run-up to the July 14 test, "various means of intercepting missiles in the boost, mid-course and terminal phase. And you could have some combination of sea-based, air-based, ground-based, air-borne laser. A variety of systems will receive research and development, testing and emphasis in the time ahead. Which ones will pan out, time will tell," he said.

The most comprehensive description of the change in the missile defence system was made by Lieutenant-General Ronald Kadish, the Director of the BMDO, during his testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on July 12 while presenting the DoD's 2002 budget for BMD programme. "The fundamental objective of the reconfigured missile defence programme," he said," is to develop the capability to defend the forces and territories of the U.S., its allies, and friends against all classes of ballistic missile threats." He told the Committee that at the direction of the Defence Secretary the BMDO was pursuing an R&D (Research and Develop-ment) and test programme that focusses on a single integrated BMD system, which does not differentiate between a TMD and an NMD, and the BMDO will deploy, over time, various combinations of sensors and weapons rather than committing itself to a single architecture.

His remarks now should be contrasted with his statement under the Clinton regime while countering criticisms that the NMD is essentially derived from the abandoned 'Star Wars': "The system we are developing is cetainly not Star Wars, or even "Son of Star Wars". Our architecture does not incorporate space-based weapons and is not designed to handle thousands of warheads in a massive nuclear exchange. Today's NMD is designed for a limited threat."

In his July 12 testimony Kadish said: "The Research, Development, Testing and Engineering (RDT&E) programme is designed to develop... layered defences that employ complementary sensors and weapons to engage threat targets in the boost, mid-course and terminal phases of flight and to deploy that capability incrementally... We will explore and demonstrate kinetic energy and directed energy kill mechanisms for potential sea-, ground-, air- and space-based operations..." "It does not define a specific architecture," Kadish said. "It does not commit to a procurement programme for a full-layered defence. There is no commitment to specific dates for production and deployment other than for the lower-tier terminal defence elements. It is not a rush to deploy untested systems; it is not a step-back to an unfocussed research programme; and it is not a minor change to our previous programme. Rather this programme is a bold move to develop an effective, integrated layered defence that can be deployed as soon as possible against ballistic missiles of all ranges."

"The previous NMD programme," he said, "was a high risk production and deployment programme dependent for its success on an RDT&E effort that was underfunded but charged with developing a system that would operate at the outset with near perfection and it was based on rigid military requirements. The new programme is built around a fully funded, rigorous RDT&E effort designed to demonstrate increasing capability over time through a robust, realistic testing programme." The BMDO has sought a funding of $8.3 billion for 2002, a 60 per cent increase over the previous year. "Our test philosophy is to add, step-by-step over time, complexity such as countermeasures and operations in increasingly stressful environments. It is a walk-before-you-run, learn-as-you-go-development approach," Kadish added.

These remarks are clearly in response to the criticisms to the entire missile defence programme contained in a comprehensive study on the National Missile Defence test programme by Philip E. Coyle, the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation Director during the deployment readiness review last year. This study of August 2000, which had remained classified until recently, may well have been the key reason for Clinton's decision in September. Coyle himself had described in fair detail his observations on the system in a testimony last September to the House Committee on Government Reform. Since then there had been considerable pressure from members of Congress to make the report public. On May 31 this year the report was made public. An executive summary of the voluminous report is also now ready.

In brief, the Coyle Report finds that the NMD system's effectiveness is not yet proven, even in the most elementary sense. According to the report, the programme is too immature to assess its effectiveness or to predict potential deployment dates. In addition, the report says that the programme fails to test basic elements of the system, such as countermeasures or multiple engagements, which are expected to be the norm. The report also finds that the system will not be able to defend against accidental or unauthorised launches.

Tests that have been conducted to date, the report said, have been made progressively easier, and they have relied on artificially "canned" scenarios that provide advanced information that will be unavailable in actual engagements.

Whether Bush is able to convince his critics in Europe and elsewhere, notably Russia and China, about his proposal remains to be seen, but parleys with European, Russian and Chinese leaders by his negotiators have been very much in evidence in recent days. Although Russia and China are talking, they have expressed their unbending faith in the ABM Treaty. But indications from the Bush administration, in particular the enlarged missile defence plan, are that it would prefer Russia to change the ABM Treaty to accommodate the envisaged missile defences. All kinds of sops like purchase of missile surveillance radars and other equipment from Russia are being offered. However, if these attempts fail it would simply walk out of the treaty, the U.S. has maintained.

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