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BMD Focus: Doubts About Interceptors

File photo of the Boeing Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) team using a special crane to lift and lower the ninth GMD ground-based interceptor into its underground silo at the Fort Greely, Alaska GMD Site. GMD is the nation's first line of defense against an enemy ballistic missile attack. There currently are seven interceptors in silos at Fort Greely and two interceptors at the GMD Site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Photo Credit: Ramsey Pryce.
By Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Oct 27, 2005
Is the drive to deploy a chain of ground-based anti-ballistic missile interceptors in Alaska faltering at the Pentagon? Do the Missile Defense Agency and the top policymakers at the Department of Defense believe that the 48 interceptors they are committed to deploying, one third of them by the end of this year, may not even work reliably? It is beginning to look that way.

Critics have charged for many months that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top team have been rushing to deploy the ABM interceptors that are meant to guard against thermonuclear ballistic missile attacks on the United States from so-called "rogue" states like Iran or North Korea without sufficiently testing and developing their component parts.

Two of the last three tests of the interceptors failed when their rocket engines failed even to ignite in the first place. And that is the by far the easiest part of the engineering involved in the hugely expensive and technologically ground-breaking program.

The rockets must then intercept the incoming missiles at a combined speed of up to 35,000 miles per hour or at least 17 times the speed of a fired bullet using the most advanced but also complex and potentially fragile electronic tracking and targeting equipment to do the job.

The interceptors have a 50 percent kill record in 10 tests where a strike on a mock enemy missile was possible. The last three tests have failed.

Interceptor deployment continues to move at a fast pace. The ninth interceptor to be deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska was installed Sept. 18, the MDA said. Rumsfeld remains determined to have a total of 16 interceptors, one third of the eventual total number of 48, deployed mostly at Fort Greely but with some at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, by the end of this year.

But Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has charged that the Missile Defense Agency has quietly lost faith in the ABM interceptor program.

Earlier this month, the Senate's Sub-Committee on Defense Appropriations publicly accused the MDA in a published report of seriously considering dismantling the ABM interceptor program, known as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense.

"The Committee understands that the Missile Defense Agency is considering breaking apart the program. The Committee disagrees emphatically," the report, submitted by Stevens, said.

The Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee said that the MDA had decided although the deployment of all the interceptors planned for Fort Greely would go ahead as planned, no upgrades or improved versions of the system would be developed. So the first generation of ABM interceptors to be deployed there would also be the last.

"After many years of investment in this midcourse interceptor (the MDA) has now essentially decided that the first generation (of them) will also be the last generation," the committee said in the report that accompanied its 2006 defense appropriations bill.

National Journal's Global Security Newswire also reported that the committee accused the MDA of trying to separate the interceptor from other parts of the midcourse intercept program, including its advanced radar and command and control systems.

Stevens is one of the leading champions of the program in Congress and has used his massive political clout on Capitol Hill to support it and advance it at every stage.

The MDA is remaining as silent as it can in the face of Stevens' denunciations. A spokesman of the MDA told the Global Security Newswire that it would not comment on the report until the defense appropriations bill was finalized.

However, this reticence has raised widespread suspicions that the senator is correct and that the MDA, while still committed by budgets, and programs to deploy the ABM interceptors, is now putting its faith in other programs, especially sea-based interceptors.

Meanwhile the Senate defense appropriations bill, which was passed by the Senate on Oct. 7, added $200 million to the missile defense budget, primarily to pay for more rigorous engineering standards in building and testing the ABM interceptors. It will not become law until it is reconciled with another version of the defense appropriations bill previously passed by the House of Representatives.

In a broader context, it is striking that the row erupted after three of the interceptor program's most passionate -- and uncritical -- advocates left the Pentagon this year.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, taking the heat for the Pentagon civilian echelon's disastrously bungled and now widely criticized failure to plan postwar reconstruction in Iraq or the development of the insurgency there, left the U.S. government early this year to take up a plum spot as the new president of the World Bank.

Wolfowitz's right hand man and loyal lieutenant in implementing all his Iraq and Ballistic Missile Defense plans, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith has finally stepped down after being the most controversial individual ever to hold that post in its history.

Although he and Wolfowitz were in the center of the Iraq war controversies, their driving determination to push ahead with deployment of the ABM interceptors even when they had never been successfully tested as integrated systems and when many of their key component parts had not been sufficiently tested, went virtually unreported in the American media.

Also, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers finished his term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to be succeeded by Marine Gen. Peter Pace. There is no doubt Pace too is ardently committed to the development of an effective Ballistic Missile Defense program for the United States as quickly as possible.

But the ABM interceptors were Myers' pride and joy and like Wolfowitz and Feith he was convinced they would work perfectly provided they were deployed as quickly as possible despite alarming evidence that, as George Gershwin wrote in "Porgy and Bess", "It ain't necessarily so."

The Alaska-based interceptors still retain passionate support from the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Earlier this month, their supporters celebrated the foiling of an attempt by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island to move $30 million out of research and development for them and $20 million from the construction of their silos in Alaska.

Riki Ellison, president and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance wrote to his members and supporters on Oct. 7, "Your collective voice was heard and your action in advocating directly to Congress was a success," Aerospace Daily and Defense Report stated Oct. 11.

But until the ABM interceptors have actually established a solid record of intercepting real missiles in flight and destroying them, doubts about their effectiveness are bound to remain.

All rights reserved. 2005 United Press International. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by United Press International.. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of United Press International.

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