Sunday, July 17, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Missile defense in place in Alaska, but will it work?

Seattle Times staff reporter

FORT GREELY, Alaska — In a bulldozed clearing of moose-inhabited river delta, one of the most ambitious military projects ever attempted is buried in the Alaska till.

It began with a decades-old dream: to render enemy missiles harmless by destroying their warheads in space, before their payloads fall to Earth.

One year ago, on July 22, that dream moved closer to reality. A trailer cab bearing Boeing's corporate logo inched across this Army post carrying a state-of-the-art missile interceptor, which was lowered into a silo.

Since then, five more Boeing interceptors have been placed in silos at Fort Greely, about 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, and two others at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The missiles create what Pentagon brass call a necessary "thin line" defense against hostile nations such as North Korea, which intelligence experts say could develop weapons to reach Seattle and other West Coast targets.

But no one is certain whether the interceptors at Fort Greely actually work.

The defensive system is so complex some compare it to the effort to build the first atomic bomb. During an attack, a 5-foot-long warhead traveling at 15,000 miles per hour must be identified, tracked and demolished by a collision 150 miles above Earth. A near interception equals failure.

In congressional testimony and news conferences, White House and Pentagon officials have made confusing, sometimes contradictory statements about the status of the embryonic missile-defense system.

And in the past year, both interceptor test flights failed.

The malfunctions and costs — roughly $31.6 billion between 1996 and 2011, with no final price tag — lead critics to assail missile defense as a limitless research program that doesn't give the president a viable option in time of crisis.

Whether the interceptors are considered functional or experimental doesn't make much difference to the Defense Department.

Today, workers are busy on the second missile field, putting into the ground 10 more interceptors by year's end.

On-again, off-again

"Later this year, the first components of America's missile defense will become operational."

President George Bush,

during a White House

bill-signing ceremony directing

$10 billion to missile defense,

Aug. 5, 2004

Devising a way to destroy enemy missiles has been a military priority since German V-2 rockets rained down on England during World War II.

But in 1972, Soviet and American leaders signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The pact prevented both countries from deploying a nationwide defense but allowed a single interceptor site in each.

At the time, negotiators wanted to avoid a scenario where the rivals built thousands of additional nuclear weapons to overwhelm the other's defenses.

The Pentagon eventually deployed a limited missile-defense system called Safeguard, which used nuclear-tipped interceptors.

The system was operational for only about six months before Congress, skeptical that Safeguard would be effective against a Soviet strike, voted to kill it in the mid-1970s.

But the idea of a national shield was resurrected in 1983, in a speech by President Reagan.

Reagan announced he would pursue a missile-defense system that would make "nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." His Strategic Defense Initiative — dubbed Star Wars — complied with the Soviet-American treaty by focusing exclusively on research.

The Defense Department began conducting tests that year, focusing on "hit-to-kill" technology that didn't require a nuclear explosion to defeat a ballistic attack.

It's supposed to work like this:

A booster rocket launches a "kill vehicle" into orbit.

The vehicle, essentially sensors strapped to a propulsion system, tracks an enemy warhead, distinguishes it from any decoys, and flies into its path.

Debris — possibly including plutonium — either drifts in orbit or is incinerated as it falls to Earth.

Within a year of taking office, President George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signaling his willingness to move Reagan's idea off the drawing board.

In 2002, Bush signed a secret directive calling for the deployment of a missile-defense system in two years.

A dispute over tests

"It would be nice and neat

if every system was either

in development or operational. In this case, that's not going

to happen."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, during a Pentagon briefing,

Dec. 22, 2004

It's difficult for the casual observer to discern that Fort Greely is the center of one of the nation's most technically sophisticated defense projects.

Spruce and birch trees encircle the Army post. Radar stations shaped like giant golf balls and concrete-sided missile-control buildings sit hundreds of yards apart to protect against accidental blasts from rocket fuel. The ground is crushed gravel.

It is dusty and hot during the summers and blanketed with snow during the dark winters.

On missile field No. 1, six clam-shell silo doors in the middle of flat concrete squares are the only indication that Fort Greely is making history. Inside are the 55-foot-tall interceptors.

This is not a test site. The Army does not have environmental permits to launch experiments. If locals ever see the white contrails of a rocket heading into space, they will know the nation is under attack.

Critics such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Mass.-based advocacy group, contend the lack of realistic trials severely undercuts the notion that what's in the silos at Fort Greely can be considered reliable.

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency claims success in seven out of 12 flight tests since 1999.

In the Oct. 14, 2002, test, for example, a prototype interceptor was launched from the Ronald Reagan Missile Site in the Marshall Islands. Six minutes later and 140 miles above the Pacific, its kill vehicle destroyed a dummy warhead fired from the central California coast.

But the tests were not generally considered "real world." The teams knew the precise time of the staged attack, and a transponder on the target emitted signals that ground control used to help aim the interceptor.

What's more, the type of booster rocket in Fort Greely is unproven as an interceptor. In the last two tests, in December 2004 and February 2005, when engineers tried to use the same technology the military deployed in Alaska, the interceptor failed to get off the ground.

And scientists say if the enemy is advanced enough to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, it would also likely deploy complex dummy warheads to try to fool the kill vehicle.

"It's easy to use decoys to fool the missiles," said Dr. David Wright, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"It gives an advantage to the country attacking. We are skeptical that you can get a system that is reliable."

Decoys are perhaps the highest of many technological hurdles.

A successful intercept would use information from satellite sensors, ship-based radar, and a new sea-based radar station on a floating platform to track the target.

This so-called X-band radar is so powerful, operators in Seattle could tell which way a baseball was spinning in Washington, D.C.

The floating platform, modeled after an oil rig, displaces 50,000 tons of water, about half that of a U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

Final assembly of the X-band radar took place in May, and the platform will move from Corpus Christi, Texas, to its homeport in Adak, Alaska, later this year.

There remain, however, unresolved issues of who would order Fort Greely to fire.

If a missile launch was perceived against Alaska or Hawaii, commanders estimate, they would have to make a decision in three to five minutes; they'd have a little more time for missiles flying toward the continental United States.

So far, though, "there has been no decision on a weapons-release policy," said Lt. Col. Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency in the Pentagon.

Propelled by events

"I don't think that the goal was ever that we would declare it was operational ... I don't know that such

a declaration

will ever be made."

Lawrence DiRita, Pentagon spokesman, Jan. 13, 2005

Missile defense under the Bush administration was, from the beginning, a different type of federal procurement.

In most military purchases, equipment is thoroughly tested and refined by the manufacturer before it is turned over to the armed service. Not so with missile defense.

Because of what the White House termed "the contemporary and emerging missile threat from hostile states," the Pentagon was ordered to field a missile defense without detailed performance standards.

Much of the threat is perceived to come from North Korea.

In 1998, without warning, North Korea launched a ballistic missile that broke up over the Sea of Japan. Some analysts think Pyongyang continues to develop an intercontinental missile that could reach Hawaii or Alaska. Iran may be able to field such a weapon by 2015.

With time ticking by, the Missile Defense Agency put the first interceptors in the silos and plans to make software and equipment changes as technology improves.

So far, lead contractor Boeing has a mixed record.

Boeing, which employs about 5,000 nationwide in its missile-defense program, heads a group of the nation's aerospace giants, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences, to build the booster, kill vehicle and radars.

According to progress reports, continued problems caused budget overruns of nearly $217 million last year.

Philip Coyle, former director of Operational Test and Evaluation at the Defense Department, likens the evolutionary approach to the Winchester Mystery House, the Victorian mansion with so many architectural oddities that it has become a tourist attraction in San Jose, Calif.

"You can build a house the same way, where you don't have a floor plan. But it's pretty expensive and you may not be happy with the result."

And, Coyle said, you don't know whether what you've built actually works.

During a congressional hearing, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, articulated the White House view: "If we waited until we went through a traditional test and operation before we then concerned ourselves with possibly deploying these in the case of emergency, it really might be too late."

"Uncertain, unverified"

"The system exists.

We have the people, we have the equipment, we have

the procedures, OK.

What we don't have

is a demonstration that

they all work together."

David Duma, acting director,

test and evaluation, Defense Department, during Senate hearing, April 7, 2005

In a March report, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, noted the "performance of the system remains uncertain and unverified."

Testifying before Congress during the spring, however, Defense Department officials gave a rosier picture.

Questioned about whether the program is far enough along for the military to use Fort Greely during a crisis, Gen. James Cartwright, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said: "If the nation needs it, we have a thin line, we have emergency capability."

Cartwright later told senators: "In an emergency, we are, in fact, in the position that we are confident that we can operate the system."

But officially, Fort Greely is listed in research-and-development status.

And, according to the commander of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion here, the interceptors are not ready to launch.

"Does the capability exist this minute to shoot if we see something? The answer to that is no," said Lt. Col. Gregory Bowen.

The system must first be put on alert, a process that would take an amount of time the military will not disclose.

It is not, however, believed to be within the 300 seconds the Strategic Command apparently has for making a decision once radar spots an incoming enemy missile.

"So when the generals are saying, 'Yes, we could shoot this thing now,' what they mean is, if the system is put on alert, we can shoot now," said Bowen, adding with a wry smile: "And if I contradict anything the generals have said, they're right."

It is up to Rumsfeld to declare the system operational, and so far there is no indication he plans to do so.

The Missile Defense Agency says it will conduct further flight tests later this year, at a price of about $85 million to $100 million each launch. The tests will be more realistic and use the same equipment now in Alaska, according to the agency.

The tests will be critical for the Pentagon.

An independent review team convened by the Missile Defense Agency noted in March that "successful test intercepts will send a strong message to adversaries of the U.S."

By the same token, another unsuccessful test could send a negative signal about the system's trustworthiness.

Meanwhile, contractors continue to drill into the Alaskan soil to meet the Pentagon's goal of adding 10 more interceptors at Fort Greely by the end of this year.

Whether we will be safer from nuclear attack when they are finished remains a matter of perspective.

"You shouldn't feel safer," Coyle said. "This is like deploying a new military aircraft without wings, a tail and landing gear."

Countered Bowen: "I sleep better at night knowing my daughter is going to be safer with this system in existence than she is without it."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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