High-Stakes Target Practice

Global security, politics collide in big defense test

rockets’ red glare tonight in the U.S. military’s landmark test of
missile defense technology.

But expect plenty of political heat.

Other countries rail against U.S. plans to deploy a shield
against enemy missiles, warning this could start a new arms race.
And with presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore both
supporting missile defense in concept, critics contend short-term
election jockeying is intruding on global security.

The success or failure of the test tonight – an attempt to
obliterate a mock warhead high over the Pacific Ocean by aiming a
122-pound interceptor very carefully – is billed as the best
indication yet whether the proposed $60 billion shield against
enemy missiles is feasible. President Clinton is to decide this
year whether to move ahead on first-phase deployment.

The system would be run from a “battle management center”
here, a mile inside Cheyenne Mountain west of Colorado Springs
where early warning operations were set up during the Cold War.
The proposed defense system is designed to protect Americans from
what U.S. officials describe as serious potential threats from
North Korea, Iran, Iraq and other nations.

“More and more nations in the future are going to invest in
ballistic missiles,” said Vice Adm. Herbert Browne, deputy chief
of the U.S. Space Command, headquartered near Colorado Springs.
“Some of those will be able to reach North America. We’re
convinced that we need to defend our country from this growing
threat. Yes, we believe the threat is real.”

Today, military crews are poised for action in Colorado
Springs, at Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Los Angeles and on
Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Sometime after 8 p.m. MDT,
they’ll launch a rocket from Vandenberg carrying the mock warhead
and a deflated Mylar balloon to serve as a decoy.

Satellites and ground-based radar stations are to detect the
warhead and decoy balloon in flight, then send the data to early
warning system operators in Colorado Springs.

Those computer operators then are to relay the location and
trajectory of the mock warhead to Kwajalein, 6,000 miles away.
That data will be programmed into the 55-inch interceptor, what
military officials call an exoatmospheric kill vehicle, atop
another rocket. Crews on Kwajalein will launch it. As it thunders
up, high-powered X-band radar on Kwajalein is to track the warhead
and send even more detailed data to the interceptor in flight.

About 20 minutes into the exercise, if all goes as planned,
the non-explosive interceptor, moving at about 15,000 mph, will
distinguish between the 6-foot-diameter decoy balloon and the mock
warhead. Pentagon planners are hoping to see a big flash as the
force of impact destroys the mock warhead.

“Everybody will be happy if we hit the target,” said Lt. Gen.
John Costello, commander of the U.S. Army Space and Missile
Defense, also based in Colorado Springs.

This is the third of 19 planned tests. Pentagon planners
claim one hit and one miss. Critics have questioned whether the
hit was for real.

“That’s baloney,” Costello said.

In January, an interceptor missed a mock warhead, Pentagon
officials said, because a cooling system clogged and shut down
heat-seeking sensors.

The first-phase missile defense deployment, should Clinton
approve it, would begin with construction of X-band radar on
Shemya Island above the Arctic circle off Alaska. Construction
would begin next spring to have a limited defense system
operational by 2005 when, according to a 1999 U.S. intelligence
estimate, North Korea could have the capability of attacking the
United States.

Other countries adamantly oppose U.S. plans.

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of
arms control, limits the development of missile defense systems.
U.S. officials are negotiating to change the treaty. For nearly a
year, U.S. diplomats have been broaching the idea of missile
defense with Chinese, European and Russian leaders.

No one’s on board.

Russia views the perceived threat from North Korea
skeptically, said Mikhail Shurgalin, spokesman for the Russian
Embassy in Washington.

“We fear this could, at a certain point, start up a new arms
race, a new cold war,” Shurgalin said. “We think those threats in
general are probably exaggerated. We understand that other
countries are concerned, too, like China and European countries.
The world is a fragile thing. Before you make a move, it is better
to find out what other people think. It is better to work out a

As for China, negotiations are said to be equally difficult. A
senior Clinton administration official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said China plans to modernize its nuclear arsenal
whether or not the United States moves ahead with missile defense.
The question, critics say, is how many missiles China will build,
and whether that motivates India and perhaps Pakistan to build
more missiles.

France has led European opposition. French officials took no
position on today’s test. But more consultation is needed before
anything is deployed, said Francois Delattre, spokesman at the
French Embassy in Washington.

“We think there are many questions,” Delattre said, such as
“the nature of the threat, the evolution of the threat, and a
possible arms race.”

Nobel laureate scientists this week urged Clinton to reject
the proposed missile defense. And today, critics plan
demonstrations, including one outside Peterson Air Force Base east
of Colorado Springs, headquarters for U.S. Space Command. Critics
contend missile defense won’t work, costs too much and causes more
international conflict than it promises to resolve.

Yet Democratic political concerns – not leaving Gore
vulnerable to Bush on whether Americans are adequately protected –
are likely to force Clinton to approve a deployment he otherwise
might reject, said John Pike, weapons analyst for the Federation
of American Scientists.

“For the political tacticians who are not worried about
Chinese nuclear missiles, who are only worried about getting their
candidate elected, this decision is very simple,” Pike said. “I
think these people are playing politics with national security. I
am an American, and I am unhappy about it.”

Gore and Bush were awaiting word on the outcome of tonight’s
test, their campaign spokesmen said. White House officials
rejected the charge that Clinton’s decision will be influenced by
presidential politics.

Clinton hasn’t decided yet and will base his decision on
objective criteria, national Security Council spokesman P.J.
Crowley said.

“We’re in a situation where whatever decision the president
makes is not going to please some groups,” Crowley said. “So he’s
just going to do what’s right for the country.”