GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- For years, the Pentagon and its Ballistic Missile Defense Organization have engaged in a continuing effort to delude the public and Congress into believing the United States is well on its way to developing a workable defense against ballistic missiles. Unfortunately, a gullible news media have unwittingly played along.
Now the truth is coming out. Last week, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, director of the missile-test organization, acknowledged that we don't yet know how to hit a missile with another missile, let along distinguish enemy warheads from decoys without radio aids. We are a long way from a national missile defense and a testing program that focuses on the problems that such a system must overcome.
But the Pentagon has staged a series of show-biz events that have been rigged to appear successful when, in fact, they prove next to nothing. Who benefits from such deception? Not the president. Not the defense secretary. Not U.S. allies. Certainly not the American people, who are no better defended against a missile attack than they would be by holding a cheap umbrella over their heads. The only clear winners are the missile-defense system's principal contractors--Boeing Co., Raytheon Corp., TRW Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp.--and those among our enemies and detractors who might seek to alienate the United States further from the rest of the world.
The flight tests conducted so far have incorporated homing beacons, unrealistic decoys and other techniques designed to create the appearance of success. But these aids to detection and target discrimination can provide no meaningful information to help a planner learn how to intercept a real missile. Later revelations of flaws in the test data or manipulated data go unreported. It's as though a baseball coach trained his outfielders with nothing but pop flies aimed directly at them.
The latest integrated flight test of a missile interceptor took place July 14 and was immediately trumpeted by the Bush administration as an unqualified success. According to initial news accounts, the target, an intercontinental ballistic missile warhead launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, was intercepted high over the Pacific Ocean and destroyed on impact by an Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Reportedly, the EKV successfully identified and ignored an accompanying decoy before homing in on the warhead to destroy it. The evening television broadcasts showed cheering test personnel watching the "kill" unfold on their monitors.
Now the truth about the test, the fourth successive failure to conduct a valid test of current missile-defense technology, is coming out. Less than a week after the test, it was revealed that the Raytheon X-band radar, the brains of the national missile defense system, had properly detected the target warhead and provided data before the interception, but that its data-analysis capability was then overwhelmed by the cloud of debris caused by the collision of target and interceptor. The radar would thus have been incapable of tracking any additional targets or discriminating between them and any decoys, an essential task in any real attack scenario. This is a major flaw. A missile defense system that can find and destroy only one target is no defense at all.
More recently, the journal Defense Week reported that the X-band radar was able to detect and track the warhead, and distinguish it from the accompanying decoy, because of a beacon implanted in the warhead that emitted a stream of identifying radio signals. A Reuters dispatch reporting on the Defense Week story has been largely ignored by media outlets.
The July 14 test was no more useful than any of its predecessors at providing data that would realistically simulate a real missile attack, but the public doesn't know it largely because the media have not vigilantly followed up on the original test. News people need to be more skeptical of these tests. When they report on the front page or lead the television news with a story that the Pentagon has conducted a successful missile-defense test, then learn that the test was a failure or that test data were rigged, they have an obligation to report the news as prominently as they reported the original story. Instead, there has been near-silence.
This is not to say that responsible voices have not been raised. Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) recently forced a reluctant Pentagon to release an unclassified report on the national missile defense test program prepared last year by its own chief civilian test evaluator, Philip E. Coyle. The Coyle report documents in detail the deceptive practices used, the failure of tests to provide meaningful data on which to base any deployment decisions and the failure to test against any realistic countermeasures an actual missile defense would almost certainly encounter. The report includes 52 recommendations for improving the testing and evaluation program, not one of which has been implemented. Regrettably, Tierney's release of the Coyle report has been largely met by silence in the media.
The day may soon come when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will tell President Bush that his experts have developed a defense system capable of defending Americans citizens against a missile attack. Will he be willfully deceiving the president? Will the president then order the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the deployment of a missile defense system that almost certainly will be incapable of protecting the Americans he has taken an oath to defend?
Thomas A. Halsted was the founding director of the Arms Control Assn. and director of public affairs for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times