Flash In Space, Arctic
Wind May Spur New Arms Race
By Douglas Hamilton
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Sometime Friday in near space over the Pacific Ocean, a 37-year-old Minuteman II missile faking an attack on the United States is due to get zapped.
If it does there will be a big, silent flash in the void, halfway between the Marshall Islands and California, which some warn will mean an end to the golden age of arms control and the start of a new arms race.
A direct hit by the prototype interceptor system designed to find, track and vaporize an incoming warhead by sheer kinetic force could clear the decks for the start of the controversial U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) project.
President Clinton is due to decide by November whether to issue contracts for pouring concrete on the remote Aleutian Island of Shemya, where a so-called X-Band radar guidance system for the first phase of NMD would be erected.
Winds there are said to be so bad that barges loaded with building material can only dock in July. So, in order to have the system ready to counter a projected threat from 2005, construction has to start next year.
Opponents say NMD would destroy the key 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty which committed the United States and the Soviet Union not to erect such a shield, so that neither would gamble on launching a knockout blow from behind it.
Backers say that was then and this is now -- those who think the clock could be stopped indefinitely on arms development and global competition are deluded. Besides, they argue, the system is not aimed at the Russians but at rogue states now armed with or developing long-range, mass-destruction missiles.
Fortress America
Looking far ahead, however, as the American themselves say they are bound to do, Russia, China and other aspiring missile powers suspect NMD could give the U.S. a big lead in a race for strategic supremacy, by making a generation of weapons obsolete.
At worst, Russia could scrap other arms control pacts.
Washington's own allies are concerned not only about the potential impact on the bedrock of nuclear arms control. They fear a unilateral decision to go ahead with NMD, by Clinton or his successor, may relegate them to a second-class level of security, thereby ``decoupling'' the Atlantic alliance.
Some believe the perceived threat from states such as North Korea or Iran is exaggerated and, if anything, will diminish. Some also find the Shemya Island time pressure artificial and some doubt that reliable anti-missile technology has been mastered.
Critics point out that the simple trick of deploying decoy warheads could dupe the ``kill vehicle.''
Friday's test will tell the tale. But any notion that everything hinges on it may be an oversimplification. While the aim is to have two successful intercepts prior to a decision, another flight test is available in the autumn if this one fails.
``It depends, of course, on what caused the failure,'' added the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, Jacques Gansler, at a recent Pentagon briefing.
Project designers have denied that Friday's test has been ''dumbed down'' to ensure a hit, by deploying only one decoy -- for the kill vehicle to examine then, hopefully, discard for the real target -- and by attaching a radar beacon to the target.
``That beacon does not help the kill vehicle in the acquisition phase,'' insisted General Ronald Kadish, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.
System Could Grow Rapidly
U.S. officials have found themselves frequently on the defensive in the NMD debate, attempting to head off suspicions that the project -- starting with 20 interceptors but rising to 250 -- is virtually unstoppable whatever the test results or the political fallout abroad.
The value of NMD work has been estimated at $60 billion.
At NATO headquarters Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Arms Control Avis Bohlen said that even if North Korea ceased to present a threat, ``this is an issue that's not going to go away.''
``I cannot imagine that we would find the world so benign that we would say we're going to stop it,'' Bohlen added. The kill vehicle for Friday's test doesn't need explosives: it is due to hit the five-foot-long Minuteman warhead at a collision velocity of 4.6 miles per second (16,560 mph) and ''ionize'' it.
But it must have the autonomous ability to look at stars to confirm exactly where it is in space and super-cooled infrared telescope detectors to sense the genuine target.
The latter failed five seconds before intercept on the previous test in January, but an earlier test succeeded. Some U.S. experts say the laws of mathematics demonstrate the discrimination system can't work anyway.
The NMD's designers now say they aim to create a system that can fire more than once during the missile's 30-minute trajectory, increasing the chances of a kill.
U.S. Not Keen On Russian Proposal
Washington is clearly unimpressed, so far, with a Russian suggestion that the protection it seeks for Americans could be derived from so-called ``theater'' anti-missile systems that would not violate the ABM treaty.
It says such interceptors would violate ABM if they could shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). But more to the point, the technology for them is even further off, and they would need to be located within a few hundred kilometers of the hostile launch site in order to strike the missile in its early, less predictable boost phase.
The debate appears to turn in circles: the United States perceives a threat, believes it can and must do something to counter it, and will go forward with NMD, barring some insurmountable obstacle.
While Washington insists NMD is not Son of Star Wars -- the grandiose, space-based missile shield plan that petered out at the end of the Reagan administration under stupendous cost estimates --its development is unlikely to be the last word in missile defense.
Allies such as France, which has its own, independent nuclear missile force, may see it as what one non-French diplomat called ``the revitalization of the American trump card in European security'' -- at a time when Europe is embarking on creating a small measure of autonomy in that field.
Clinton, facing an unenviable choice, is said to be considering giving the project a ``limited green light'' so that contracts for the Aleutian Island radar station work can be issued this year.
U.S. officials acknowledge that it might seem strange for the weather on a barren sub-Arctic island to fix the schedule for such a momentous arms decision, but say this would be the only way of meeting the perceived threat in 2005.

This Site Served by TheHostPros