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     Jun 24, 2006
Hollow US defense for an empty threat
By David Isenberg

WASHINGTON - The news that North Korean is preparing to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 1998 is the latest "threat" to roil the international scene.

Predictably, duly certified experts have gone public to wring their hands, intone what a grave menace such a launch represents, and prescribe solutions. Thus far, the most ludicrous is the June 22 Washington Post op-ed by Ashton B Carter and William J Perry, who were respectively assistant secretary of defense and secretary of defense under US president Bill Clinton and are now professors at Harvard and Stanford universities, who wrote that the United States should immediately make clear its intention to

strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong 2 missile before it can be launched.

This is premature, to say the least, considering North Korea may
not even have an ICBM. According to DefenseTech, a leading website on military technology, the North Koreans have previously launched exactly one intermediate-range ballistic missile. That missile, a combination of smaller Nodong and Scud missiles - went about 2,000 kilometers or so.

Now, US intelligence assumes the North Koreans have been working on strapping together more Nodong and Scud engines for an ICBM - something that can reach three to five times as far, and hit the United States. But no one has actually seen the missile. Even how many stages the mystery missile has is unknown; some folks say two, others say three.

But, by far, the most laughable news is the US government announcement that it is activating its missile defense system. This, no doubt, is causing the North Korean leaders to shake - in fits of laughter. One can only imagine some flunky saying, "Good news, Dear Leader: the American imperialists have activated their missile defense system. Now we can launch."

The activation of the system is what one can only call a Pyrrhic readiness gesture, considering the system has a particularly distinguished record of failures in its operational tests to date and is still considered to be in the laughing-stock stage by most impartial experts.

As most people have learned in the 20-plus years since the late president Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, shooting down an incoming ICBM even under the best of conditions is a daunting challenge.

And the US missile defense system is far from perfect. Phillip Coyle III, a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information and former assistant secretary of defense and director, operational test and evaluation, said this in January:
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency has not had a successful flight intercept test with its Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system for three and a half years. In the most recent two flight-intercept tests, the interceptor never got off the ground. Nevertheless the GMD system is being deployed in Alaska and California. The MDA plans 20 or 30 more developmental flight-intercept tests before they will be ready for realistic operational testing. At the current rate of success it could take over 50 years before the system was ready to be tested under realistic operational conditions.
If spending rises as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, US taxpayers could spend more than a trillion dollars on missile defense in that period. This does not include the roughly US$100 billion already spent on missile defense since Reagan's "Star Wars" speech in 1983.

Currently, the Pentagon spends about $8 billion a year on national missile defense. The ground-based missile-defense component was over budget by more than $365 million last year and delivered fewer interceptors than planned without proof they would work, according to a review by the Government Accountability Office this year.

Even the few so-called successful tests of the GMD system are dubious. According to Coyle, flight-intercept tests have been conducted under artificial and unrealistic conditions.

Examples include prior knowledge by the defender as to the time of attack, the type of attacking missile, its trajectory and intended target location, and the makeup of its payload. No real enemy would ever knowingly provide such information to the US military in advance of an attack.

As a result, while there have been 10 flight-intercept tests of the GMD system since 1999, five of which were successful, the GMD system has no demonstrated capability to defend the US under realistic operational conditions. In fact, the system has not successfully intercepted a single missile in its current configuration.

The Washington, DC-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation put out a news release noting that the past tests of the system prove an intercept is feasible only:
  • When operators know in advance the location of a single target missile, the date and time of its launch and its flight trajectory.
  • When a surrogate booster rocket launches the missile, which flies at slower than normal speed in daylight and good weather.
  • When the target re-entry vehicle is equipped with global-positioning technology and a radar beacon to send its position to a surrogate ground-control radar.

    Actually, things are even worse. According to Victoria Samson, also of the Center for Defense Information, the GMD program has nine interceptors on the ground in Fort Greely, Alaska, and two more in Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. And the last test intercept was made in October 2002. The past two times - December 2004 and February 2005 - the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) tried to attempt an intercept, the US rocket didn't even leave the launch pad. (For the latter, it turned out that the arms holding the missiles up in their silos weren't properly built for the salty environment in which they were fielded, so the MDA is replacing those components in all the silos.)

    Furthermore, Samson notes, the radar system that is needed to help detect missile launches, the sea-based X-Band Radar (SBX), is still undergoing tests outside Hawaii - nowhere near its home port of Adak, Alaska. The satellite network being built to track missiles once they're launched - the Space-Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) - isn't planning its initial launch of two test satellites until next year, with the goal of getting the system up and running somewhere around 2012.

    And the command and control system necessary to link everything together was cited in a recent report by the Pentagon's Inspector General's Office as having such poor network security that it very well could be hacked. That report proved so embarrassing that the Pentagon subsequently removed it from the inspector general's website.

    However, there is one bit of good news. Samson said the program did have significant success in that last December the MDA held a flight test where the major goal was to get the rocket off the ground. That they were able to do.

    David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), has a wide background in arms-control and national-security issues. The views expressed are his own.

    (Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

  • Pyongyang will shoot itself in the foot (Jun 22, '06)

    There's method in the missile madness (Jun 21, '06)

    The long reach of North Korea's missiles (Jun 21, '06)


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