It's curious that on the campaign trail George W. Bush has boasted of many accomplishments, whether real or imaginary, but the missile-defense program has almost never been among them. This is no small point. Bush pushed missile defense as a major issue in the 2000 election. From the start of his presidency, he made it one of his top priorities. He revoked the 1972 Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty in order to pursue the program at full throttle. He tripled its budget ($10.7 billion this year alone, more than twice as much as for any other weapon system). He demanded that the Pentagon start fielding the system by the fall of 2004—that is, before the coming election—and indeed, last July, the first antimissile missile was lowered into its silo, a second is now in place, and eight more are scheduled to follow in the next few weeks.
Keeping America safe from attack is the central theme of the president's re-election campaign. Why then—except for a rally last month at a Boeing plant where a piece of the program is manufactured—has he scarcely mentioned missile defense?
Perhaps because the program is having serious problems—and because Bush knows it's having problems.
A few weeks ago, according to Pentagon officials, Bush received a briefing on the program's status from Gen. James E. Cartwright, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, the branch of the military in charge of nuclear war planning (it used to be called Strategic Air Command). Cartwright, who was appointed to the command just last July, was a strange choice for the job. He is a career Marine officer, the first Marine ever to be named to the job. The Marine Corps has no involvement in strategic nuclear weapons and never has. But Cartwright—a former aviation wing commander who's spent the last few years in the Pentagon, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff's director of force structure, resources, and assessment—is known as a straight shooter (his nickname is "Hoss," like the Cartwright on the old TV show Bonanza). So Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent Hoss to toss the lasso around the nuke-gnomes at StratComm. (One official, who half-admires Rumsfeld, calls the appointment "typical Rummy—keep 'em on their toes.")
Officials say that Cartwright is well aware of the serious delays and technical uncertainties plaguing missile defense and that he outlined the problems clearly in his briefing to President Bush.
The latest chapter in the long saga of the search for an antimissile missile—a saga that goes back a half-century—occurred earlier this month. Bradley Graham wrote about it in the Sept. 14 Washington Post (and, as far as I know, no other major media outlet has followed up on his story). Graham didn't report on Cartwright's briefing. But he did uncover the fact that the Missile-Defense Agency has delayed—for the second time in two months and now until at least the end of the year—a crucial flight test of the interceptor.
The pathetic fact is, the interceptor isn't ready for a test. Glitches discovered from the last test still haven't been fixed. The test crews are stumped by the cause, so they've sent it back to the factory to see if someone there can find a solution.
And yet the Pentagon has decided that the thing is ready for production and deployment. The agency is proceeding with plans to deploy 10 of the interceptors over the next few weeks in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska. (For more about Bush's missile-defense dreams and nightmares, click here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
When Bush announced two years ago that he was accelerating the deployment of these interceptors, the point was to have some capability to shoot down nuclear missiles, especially those that might be fired by North Korea, by the eve of the '04 election.
As Graham notes, it has been two years since the interceptors have been flight tested. The rocket booster designed to lift them into outer space—to collide with North Korean missiles as they arc across the heavens—has never been tested while carrying an interceptor. Nor has it been tested at more than half its required speed. The interceptors, launched by other means, did hit their target in five out of eight flight tests (the last of which took place in December 2002), but those tests were—not to put too fine a point on it—rigged. The targets were "lit up" so the sensors could spot them more quickly. The technicians knew where the target was coming from and where it was going. The hits were remarkable technical achievements, but they proved nothing about how the system would perform against a real missile in an actual attack (nor, in fairness to the MDA, were the tests intended to prove anything about that).
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