MODIFIED MINUTEMAN MISSILE was the interceptor rocket in a series of controversial tests of the national missile defense system from 1997 to 2002. Fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, the interceptors destroyed mock warheads in five of eight attempts, but the tests did not realistically simulate a ballistic-missile attack. Image: PAUL SHAMBROOM nukephoto.com
This fall, perhaps by the time you read this, President George W. Bush is expected to declare that the first phase of the long-awaited national missile defense is operational. The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) plans to install six interceptor rockets--designed to strike a ballistic missile in midcourse--in silos at Fort Greely in Alaska by mid-October. Ten more will be deployed at Fort Greely and four more at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by the end of 2005. Over the following years the MDA intends to bolster this rudimentary midcourse defense with more interceptors, advanced radars and surveillance satellites. The reason for the deployment is to counter the threat that a rogue state--namely, North Korea or Iran--will attempt to hit the U.S. with nuclear or biological weapons delivered on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
But despite the more than $80 billion spent by the U.S. on missile defense since 1985, this system will not provide significant protection for many years, if ever. The political pressure to claim that the U.S. is secure against a rogue nation's attack has led to a defense that will not counter even the earliest threats from the emerging missile powers. The MDA's midcourse system is built to intercept long-range missiles fired thousands of kilometers from the U.S.; it can do nothing to stop a short- or medium-range missile launched from a ship off America's coasts. What is more, the interceptor rockets would most likely prove inadequate against long-range missiles as well, because an enemy could easily equip its ICBMs with fundamentally simple and highly effective countermeasures.
This article was originally published with the title Holes in the Missile Shield.