If the generals in charge of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency followed the wispiest trail of logic, they would have slashed the program and moved on to more promising pursuits long ago. This month brings yet another bit of news (for earlier bits, click here and here) indicating not only that the program has scant chance of producing a workable missile-defense system, but that its managers know of its dim prospects.
The latest flash, from the Aug. 1 edition of the trade journal Defense News, is that the agency has suspended one of the program's most crucial components on the grounds that the technology it involves is "not mature enough" to fund.
The component is called the space-based kinetic-energy boost-phase interceptor, a name that sounds too esoteric to deserve notice (and, indeed, no mainstream paper seems to have picked up on the report of its suspension), but in fact the news is a bombshell.
The missile-defense program—for which President Bush is spending $9.1 billion next year alone, with steady increases planned in future years to infinity—envisions, ultimately, a three-layered system. The boost-phase interceptors will shoot down enemy missiles in the first three or four minutes after they've been launched, as they ascend through the atmosphere into the edge of outer space. The "midcourse-defense interceptors" will fire at the missiles during the 20 minutes that they arc across the heavens. The "terminal-defense interceptors" will shoot down the missiles that survive the earlier layers in their final minutes of flight, as they plunge back down to earth toward their targets.
Of the three layers, boost-phase intercept (BPI) is the most important—and, theoretically, the easiest. An enemy missile is most vulnerable at this stage. It hasn't yet separated from the rocket booster, so it's very large. The booster's engines are still blazing, so it's a highly "visible" target to a wide variety of sensors (optical, radar, or heat-seeking). And it's moving relatively slowly.
The key limitation to BPI, even on a theoretical level, is that the anti-missile interceptor has to be fairly near—preferably, right above—the enemy's launch site. But if it can be well-positioned, this is the layer where the pickings are ripest.
In fact, many discussions of multilayered defenses assume that the later layers will be devoted mainly to mopping up the few missiles that the boost-phase interceptors missed. To put it another way, without BPI, the other layers will almost surely be oversaturated even by a relatively "small" attack.
Late last year, officials from the Missile Defense Agency told industry reps that they planned to start pursuing a space-based interceptor in 2004. It is this plan that the agency has now decided to suspend indefinitely.
The whole missile-defense program is a very high priority for President Bush and for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who has been a major proponent of space-based defenses for a decade). Bush decided last December to start deploying anti-missile missiles next year—10 ground-based interceptors in Fort Greeley, Alaska (for midcourse defense), with another 10 fielded in 2005, and more soon after. As a prelude to that decision, he announced that the United States would no longer observe the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, precisely to let him deploy those interceptors and conduct tests of other interceptors at sea and in outer space. (The ABM Treaty prohibited all these activities.)
But the question now becomes: If boost-phase intercept is grinding to a halt, what is the point of moving ahead so quickly, and expensively, on the rest of the program?