Gathering Places


Bush missile defense
plan could be a dud

The costly system could score
a direct hit -- on Hawaii

The Bush administration's recent decision to deploy missile interceptors in 2004 will waste resources on systems of dubious effectiveness against unlikely threats to U.S. security. The systems being tested have performed poorly in relatively simple tests, and a study by independent technical experts details how these systems can be easily defeated by countermeasures.

A Standard Missile-3 interceptor was launched June 13 off the coast of Kauai.

Hawaii could be affected -- literally -- by upcoming tests.

Even missile defense proponents concede that the initial deployment would have very limited capabilities even if the interceptors work as hoped. Six missile interceptors would be deployed in Alaska and four in California by the end of 2004. Ten more would be deployed in Alaska in 2005. The focus for such a system would be an intercontinental missile launched from North Korea, even though there is no evidence that North Korea has such missiles. In addition, 20 interceptors to counter shorter-range missiles would be deployed on Navy Aegis ships. Deploying these systems is expected to cost $1.5 billion in addition to the $16 billion budgeted for further development and testing in the next two years.

These interceptors rely on a hit-to-kill vehicle that uses infrared and visible sensors to try to distinguish a warhead from decoys, then home in on the warhead and destroy it by making a direct hit. The kill vehicle itself carries no explosives.

One of the most technically challenging problems is distinguishing the warhead from decoys that could accompany it. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the MIT Security Studies Program in April 2000 concluded that the sensors on current kill vehicles could be defeated by balloon decoys and other readily available countermeasures. The American Physical Society, the national professional organization of physicists, has issued a statement that no deployment decision should be made until tests demonstrate that the system is effective against countermeasures.

None of the tests so far has used decoys that resemble the dummy warhead and thus are much less challenging than interceptors could face in a real attack. The interceptor was programmed with the known characteristics of the warhead and decoys and was launched with knowledge of the target missile's launch time and approximate trajectory.

Even with these ideal test conditions, the results have been poor. The interceptors for the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD), scheduled for deployment in 2004, have made five hits in eight tries, including the most recent test on Dec. 11 when the kill vehicle failed to separate from the rocket booster. The Army's THAAD interceptor, which may be tested on Kauai in 2005, had two hits in eight tries. The Navy's LEAP kill vehicle had no hits in five tries in initial tests in the early 1990s.

In more recent tests using the Standard Missile-3 interceptor, it had three hits in three tries. (Earlier tests of only the SM-3 interceptor had one failure in three launches.) The SM-3 interceptor apparently hit the target rocket booster in these three tests. This is much less challenging than trying to hit a warhead because the booster is a larger target and is easier to track.

More tests involving Hawaii are planned, but so far there has been little opportunity for public review. There was a public meeting on Sept. 18 about an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for testing the GMD system. This meeting was not well publicized; only three Hawaii residents attended. Hawaii's main involvement will be a sea-based radar that could be based at Pearl Harbor. The EIS document is planned for release this month. An Environmental Assessment (EA) was released in October for a test of an air-launched missile target that could be used in missile defense tests. The target missile would be dropped from an airplane and then launched toward Kwajalein. The airplane carrying the missile would take off from the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on Kauai. The public comment period for this EA was only 15 days. No notice was sent to the Hawaii Office of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC) for this EA or for the Sept. 18 meeting.

Tests of the Army's THAAD interceptors from Kauai could have the largest impacts on Hawaii. A notice of the draft EA for THAAD Pacific Test Flights was published in the Sept. 23 OEQC notices. When I requested a copy from the Army, I was told that it was "not available for public review at this time." The EA was released on Dec. 20; the public comment period ends on Jan. 20. According to the distribution list, this EA was sent to only one state agency and three Hawaii libraries. It was not sent to the OEQC. Requests for the EA and comments on it should be sent to: U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, SMDC-EN-V/Thomas Craven, P.O. Box 1500, Huntsville, AL 35807-3801.

THAAD launches from Kauai raise safety issues that are not adequately addressed in the EA. In the 1998 PMRF Enhanced Capability EIS, the launches were envisioned from Niihau, apparently because the required launch hazard area (20,000-foot radius) was too large for the Kauai missile range. The recently released EA does not contain any diagrams or other details about the proposed THAAD launch hazard area. Another notable impact is that debris from intercepts could hit Nihoa Island.

It seems clear that the proposed missile defense tests need more public scrutiny. The Missile Defense Agency must provide notices and environmental documents to Hawaii's members of Congress, state agencies and the general public in time to allow a meaningful review. The recent Defense Department policy to classify details of the tests should be changed to allow review by independent technical experts.

At the national level, more public debate is needed about plans for and costs of missile defense. Perhaps then scientists and the general public will be able to convince Congress that deploying ineffective and inadequately tested systems will not increase our security, but will waste resources needed to deal with more likely threats.

Michael Jones is a physicist at the University of Hawaii.

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