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Missile Shield or Holy Grail? | The Nation

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Missile Shield or Holy Grail?

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For example, one intelligence official betrayed visible irritation during his briefing of commission members, prompting General Welch to ask, "You're not happy to be here, are you?" The official replied, "No, I'm not. I'm ticked off that I have to come down and brief a bunch of wacko missile-defense advocates." His outburst infuriated Rumsfeld, who "stalked" out of the room.

The views expressed in this article are personal and are not intended to reflect the official position of Walter C. Uhler's employer, the United States Department of Defense.

About the Author

Walter C. Uhler
Walter C. Uhler, a weapons acquisition executive in the Defense Department, writes about Russian and military history...

Also by the Author

Near the end of his threadbare, tendentious and dubious hagiography of
Ronald Reagan, Peter Schweizer recounts the President's first trip to
Moscow, in late spring 1988.

Gorbachev represented a unique change in Soviet statesmanship; two books examine him and the end of the Cold War.

Nevertheless, Rumsfeld's report and the launch of North Korea's missile frightened Americans and galvanized Republicans. Graham's investigative reporting gets inside the subsequent political war waged against a Clinton Administration that, itself, was slowly awakening to the possibility of a more imminent ballistic missile threat.

Graham brings an open mind to the hotly disputed technological merits of missile defense. Nevertheless, he cannot avoid the conclusion that George W. Bush's decision to expand missile defense beyond Clinton's ground-based midcourse program constitutes an acknowledgment that, after fifty years, "military contractors had yet to figure out how best to mount a national missile defense."

In theory, a ballistic missile can be intercepted during its comparatively slow, if brief, "boost phase," before its "payload"--warheads, decoys and debris--is released. Speed is of the essence during the boost phase. So is proximity to the target. According to Philip Coyle, former director of the Pentagon's Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, "The process of detection and classification of enemy missiles must begin within seconds, and intercept must occur within only a few minutes. In some scenarios, the reaction time to intercept can be less than 120 seconds."

Compounding concerns about boost-phase intercepts are questions about the ability of an interceptor to distinguish quickly between a missile's flame and the missile itself. Finally, boost-phase missile-defense platforms would invite pre-emptive attacks against those platforms by any state bold (and foolish) enough to launch ballistic missiles.

The "terminal phase" of ballistic missile flight is the final minute or two when the payload re-enters the atmosphere. Detection of the warhead is comparatively simple, but designing a missile fast enough to catch it and hit it--given the problems associated with sensor degradation in intense heat--is extremely difficult. Countermeasures, such as maneuvering capability or precursor explosions, would further complicate defensive efforts. Finally a terminal-phase missile defense can, by definition, protect only a limited area, perhaps one city. Thus, many such systems would be required.

The "midcourse phase" of ballistic missile flight is the period during which the payload is dispersed in space. It remains there more than 80 percent of the missile's total flight time. The Clinton Administration's ground-based midcourse program (continued by the Bush Administration) is designed to strike the warhead in space with a high-speed, maneuverable kill vehicle--thus Graham's title: Hit to Kill.

Easily the most developed of all programs, as recently as December 3, 2001, the midcourse program demonstrated the awesome technological feat of destroying a warhead hurtling through space--hitting a bullet with a bullet. Yet such a feat constitutes but the commencement of an arduous technological journey, not its endpoint.

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