Published on Sunday, July 9, 2000 in the London Observer
Missed! $100M Foul-Up For Star Wars
Report From On Board Greenpeace's 'Arctic Sunrise'
by Antony Barnett
Two hundred miles off the coast of California, a red flash exploded on the Pacific horizon. Within seconds the fireball grew, blasting through the heavens at up to 15,000mph.
As it blazed past the constellation of Aquilla, the $100 million (£68m) comet left a trail of weapons-grade graffiti on the night sky. America's most ambitious Star Wars military exercise had begun.
America insists the new technology - which will allow it to attack any target on the surface of the earth with impunity - is vital to its defence. But there is one snag: it does not work.
Embarrassed Pentagon officials were forced to admit yesterday that they had failed to destroy a target warhead in space in the third test of its proposed National Missile Defence system.
'We did not intercept the warhead tonight. We are disappointed,' Air Force Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the missile defence effort, said after the weapon failed to separate from its booster rocket and intercept the dummy warhead over the Pacific Ocean.
'It tells me we have more engineering work to do,' Kadish said. 'We had good confidence in this. This is rocket science - things do happen.'
On board the Arctic Sunrise, where eight campaigners had been sailing around the exclusion zone in inflatable dinghies watching anxiously as the missile roared overhead, no one could quite believe the news at first. Could the nation that had just demonstrated to us its awesome power have simply missed?
The radio cracked again. The answer was a clear 'Yes'. As the last faint traces of the missile's afterglow disappeared from the night sky, bottles of beer were opened in celebration in the ship's mess.
Maria, a Greenpeace activist from Moscow aboard the Arctic Sunrise, said: 'I don't know why, but seeing this missile come over our heads like that, I still feel scared. How can man make something so evil and so beautiful at the same time?'
As he clambered out on to the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, wearing an orange survival suit, one said: 'It serves them right. Fantastic.'
It was the second failure in three tries for the system. The miss could weigh heavily in a decision by Bill Clinton later this year on whether to begin building a new radar system in Alaska for a limited missile defence network in the face of bitter objections from Russia and China.
Kadish told a Pentagon press conference that the 'hit- to-kill' weapon fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific at 12:40 a.m. Washington time (04.40 GMT) did not separate from the second stage of its lift-off rocket. The weapon had no chance of intercepting a warhead launched about 20 minutes earlier from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, 4,000 miles away.
Under-secretary of Defence Jacques Gansler said he felt the design of the planned NMD system 'is pretty solid', but declined to say what recommendation Defence Secretary William Cohen might make to Clinton in coming weeks as to whether the system can be deployed by 2005.
Clinton is caught between opposition from Moscow and Beijing, who fear that a mature and successful US anti-missile system could neutralise their nuclear arsenals, and pressure from conservatives in the US Congress for quick deployment and limited protection against threats from such states as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
Prominent scientists and former US government officials have also warned the president that the technology is so immature that it would be folly to begin building a system that could cost anywhere from $30 billion to $60bn.
After detailed technical data from Saturday's test is analysed by the Pentagon, Boeing and Raytheon, William Cohen is scheduled to relay a recommendation to Clinton in coming weeks on NMD's immediate future. Clinton says his decision will also consider a pending detailed intelligence analysis of the threat from emerging potential enemies such as North Korea as well as US ties with its European allies, China and Russia.
Europe fears a new arms race begin if the United States breaks the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty by building even a limited system.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000