Folly in Alaska?


Stephen Young

Proposals for a new missile defense test facility don't make sense.

Since the attacks of September 11, President Bush has sensibly focused US policy on international cooperation, building a global coalition to carry out the fight against terrorism. It is too early to tell how effective that fight will be, or how long it will last. Unfortunately, the Bush administration is also apparently still seeking to prematurely deploy a rudimentary national missile defense system. That step could seriously damage efforts to maintain the antiterrorism coalition that has been so carefully created. In particular, Russia, a critical player in the coalition, has strenuously objected to US missile defense plans. Moreover, it makes no sense to begin building the system anytime soon. Here's why.

First off, no system is anywhere near ready to deploy. In decades of effort, the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars in research. More than a dozen schemes for missile defense have been investigated. Most recently, the Clinton administration focused on ground-based interceptors intended to smash into incoming warheads in outer space. President Clinton decided against beginning to build the system last year, citing concerns about the readiness of the technology and its vulnerability to countermeasures.

Despite those problems, that system has become a key component in the Bush administration's plans. Testing it continues. On July 14, 2001, the Pentagon succeeded, the second time in four attempts, in hitting an incoming warhead. That "success," however, was more apparent than real. Though an impressive technical feat, it came only after every adverse variable that can be eliminated was eliminated. That includes not only knowing the time, origin, and flight path of the "attack," but the exact characteristics of the incoming mock warhead and a single decoy as well. Tests that demonstrate that the defense will work in the real world won't take place for years. That's why UCS, along with other experts like Philip Coyle, who headed testing at the Pentagon until earlier this year, has been calling for more realistic tests before any attempts to construct a national missile defense begin.

The Bush administration has responded to this recommendation with a peculiar proposal for a new "test bed" for national missile defense. A central component of the test bed: five interceptors at Fort Greely, an Army base in Alaska, scheduled to be in place by 2004.

On the face of it, this seems like a good sign, as it acknowledges the need for better testing. Except for one important point: flight tests can't be conducted from Fort Greely. Because that base is inland and only 100 miles from Fairbanks, tests could rain burnt-out missile stages on Alaskan citizens. Thus, safety restrictions prohibit test-launching interceptor missiles from there.

Instead, missiles would need to be transported 500 miles to another planned facility on Kodiak Island for launching. The rest of the tests would continue to use interceptors launched from Kwajalein, the existing test site in the Marshall Islands, out in the Pacific.

The Bush administration claims that the silos at Fort Greely will be used for other kinds of testing-of communication between parts of the missile defense system, fuel degradation, and maintenance procedures. That doesn't make sense. Those types of tests are needed much later, to get a system up and running, not to determine whether the concept will work. And even if such tests were justified at this stage, the Pentagon would not need to build five silos to test how fuel degrades in the arctic or to develop maintenance procedures.

The Pentagon also claims that the missiles will demonstrate that the United States can design a system that would allow interceptors to fire simultaneously without interfering with each other. Again, such a demonstration could never be made at Fort Greely, since silos at the landlocked base can't be used to test launch interceptors.

Is there some other reason for this seemingly illogical proposal? The Bush administration states that the five silos would also have an "emergency defense" capability by 2004. The claim is that if a "rogue" country launched a missile or two, these five untested interceptors would be able to protect the United States.

Such protection is highly unlikely. Operational-or "real world"-testing will almost certainly not begin before 2006. Even then, assuming the interceptors worked perfectly, the system would provide little protection against an attack from North Korea-the most often-cited "threat"-because there is no missile defense radar in Alaska, and the Bush administration does not plan to build one. The existing radars cannot reliably distinguish warheads from decoys, or even debris.

Why go ahead with an unproven defense? The answer may be found in looking beyond what the Bush administration admits, to what may be its real goals.

First, 2004, the target date for building the five silos, is a presidential election year. Although the fight against terrorism will undoubtedly still be the focus, Bush seems likely to also want to be able to claim that he is defending America from all possible threats.

Second, the project would provide an excuse for abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty-the 1972 accord between the United States and Russia-which is unpopular with an administration that until September 11 favored unilateral action over cooperative approaches. The ABM Treaty was designed to avert an arms race by prohibiting deployment of nationwide missile defenses, since defenses would encourage development of more powerful offensive capabilities. To build the silos at Fort Greely next spring-a clear violation of that treaty-the United States would need to give its six-month notice of intent to withdraw from the treaty sometime this fall. Russia has said that it will continue to make verifiable reductions in its nuclear arsenal only if the ABM Treaty remains in force.

In our desire to protect ourselves from attack, we must not blindly rush forward with missile defenses without knowing whether they work. Resources are limited, and right now we need to focus our time, effort, and money on addressing the terrorist threat. More importantly, rushing ahead with defenses that are deeply opposed by Russia and China may only serve to undermine US security, which-as is clearly evident now-depends on international cooperation.

Fall 2001