Missile Defense Boss Sees
Years Of Testing Ahead
05/09/00 07:06:44 PM U.S. EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Clinton may decide as early as this summer whether to give a green light to constructing a national missile defense, but the Air Force general leading the project said Tuesday it would take four more years of testing before he would feel confident it will work.
Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish said the development of a national missile defense — designed to shoot down a small number of missiles fired from North Korea or the Middle East — is on the right track. He expressed confidence that the next flight test of an interceptor rocket, scheduled for June, will be a success.
But Kadish, who directs the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, said there are so many technological milestones yet to be met that he would not be confident about its effectiveness until production-model rocket boosters and other advanced equipment are tested in 2004. Not until that stage will the testing involve people who would actually be operating a deployed system.
The rocket booster to be used in the June test is a prototype. The production model will not be ready until 2003.
“We're walking before we run,” Kadish said.
The June test is considered critical — at much from a political as a technological standpoint — because it probably will be the last attempted intercept before Clinton decides whether to push forward with building the missile defense system. If Clinton leaves the decision to his successor, the Pentagon would be unable to meet its self-imposed deadline of having a missile defense operating by 2005.
That date coincides with the Pentagon's estimate of when North Korea may have an initial capability to strike U.S. territory with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.
The timetable is severely constrained because, in order to meet the 2005 target, construction on a new radar in the Aleutian Islands would have to begin next April, Kadish said in an interview with Pentagon reporters. Contracts for constructing the radar could not be awarded until Clinton gives his go-ahead.
Kadish said he visited Shemya Island in the Aleutians, where the X-band radar is to be built, last week. “We're going to have a challenge to build that radar on this island,” he said, not because of technology but because of the wind-swept island's exceptionally short construction season.
Kadish said experts had solved the problem that caused the last missile intercept test to fail in January — a plumbing problem that caused a malfunction in sensitive devices aboard the missile interceptor that enable it to “see” its target against the cold background of space.
“That particular problem, I think — barring a real stupid mistake — is under control,” Kadish said. “If we don't have one of those glitches, we think the design we have will be successful on the next flight test.”
Still, the three-star general said he worried that another seemingly minor problem could crop up at any time. “One of the things I worry about a lot ... is that it's that one wire that shakes loose in the system that prevents the test from being successful, or it's that plug or the water molecule in the plumbing system that gets you. It doesn't have to do with the fundamental design so much as the complexity of the stuff we're building.”
Most experts believe that if the June test fails to intercept its target, Clinton will put off a deployment decision. Defense Secretary William Cohen is scheduled to make his recommendation to Clinton this summer.
The anti-missile system is designed to provide protection for all 50 states against a ballistic missile attack from a “rogue” nation. A base with 20 interceptor rockets would be built in Alaska — most likely at Fort Greely near Fairbanks — along with the X-band radar on Shemya Island. By 2007, under the current schedule, the system would be expanded to 100 interceptor rockets. The Pentagon estimates the cost at $30 billion.