Pentagon Defends NMD Plans Amid Growing Skepticism

July/August 2000

By Wade Boese

IN SEVERAL JUNE congressional hearings and public briefings, senior Pentagon officials defended the fast pace of the Clinton administration's planned limited national missile defense (NMD) and disputed claims that the system would not work. On June 15, some 50 members of Congress called on the FBI to investigate charges of fraud and cover-up in the NMD program. But senior Pentagon officials dismissed allegations accusing program officials of tampering with data. Throughout the month, former government officials, scientists, and leading scholars petitioned President Bill Clinton to defer a deployment decision.

Clinton is scheduled to decide later this year whether to begin the deployment process of a 100-missile interceptor system in Alaska to defend the entire United States against a limited attack by or accidental launch of strategic ballistic missiles. Though the system is not set to become operational until 2005, program officials insist that meeting the target deadline requires that construction of an advanced NMD radar on Shemya begin next summer. Shemya is a remote Aleutian Island where the building season is very short because of severe weather conditions. According to program plans, the president is to authorize construction of the Shemya radar this fall so that construction contracts can be awarded to permit shipment of building materials to the island in the spring of 2001.

While acknowledging at a June 28 House Armed Services Committee hearing that the NMD schedule is "very complex and very high risk," Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Jacques Gansler said the program is "one we believe clearly is worth the effort." To reduce risks, top Pentagon officials stress there are four "distinct decision points" in the deployment schedule. Explaining this year's decision to commit to building the advanced X-band radar, Gansler said in a June 20 press briefing that the actual determination—and second decision point—to actually start radar construction will be next year. In 2003, the Pentagon will decide on acquiring the interceptor missiles, which Gansler stated is "the real decision, in terms of commitment, to building weapons." The final decision on whether the entire system is ready for operation will be in 2005.

Charging that the defense is incapable of distinguishing between actual warheads and decoys, some critics, including more than 35 scientists and engineers who lobbied Congress against the system on June 12, contend the system will never be ready for deployment. But the head of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees the NMD program, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish said in congressional testimony given June 22 that the defense would be able to counter the simple countermeasures that potential adversaries could be expected to develop and employ by 2005. Citing the difficulty of developing countermeasures, Kadish said, "It is likely, in my opinion, that we would see no decoys."

While conceding that the defense will "not be perfect against every conceivable countermeasure," Kadish said the system's capability for handling countermeasures will grow. He further argued that much of the criticism focuses only on the system's exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), which uses infrared sensors to find and collide with the target warhead in the final seconds of an intercept, and neglects other NMD elements, such as the X-band radar and space-based sensors, that will help the EKV discriminate between objects when the system is deployed.

Kadish specifically dismissed allegations by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Theodore Postol as "not relevant, because they concern a kill vehicle we did not select." Postol, using data from an early NMD flight test of an EKV produced by Boeing and TRW (the current EKV is built by Raytheon), alleged in a May 11 letter to the White House that the system's EKV could not effectively discriminate between warheads and decoys and that program officials selectively manipulated data to prove otherwise.

In an interview via e-mail, Postol refuted Kadish's testimony, arguing that "small differences in the characteristics of the Raytheon and Boeing kill vehicle sensors are irrelevant" because BMDO's own infrared and signal data revealed there was "essentially no exploitable information about whether the objects were decoys or warheads." Postol added that the Raytheon EKV was chosen over the Boeing model not for technical reasons but because a "Boeing engineer was found with Raytheon documents containing competition-sensitive information on the Raytheon EKV design."

In his original letter, Postol charged NMD officials with reducing the number of objects to be used in intercept attempts from 10 to two to hide the EKV's discrimination shortcomings. Kadish, during his June 22 testimony, attributed the reduction to a change in testing objectives from seeing and discriminating among objects to improving and refining the EKV's hit-to-kill technologies.

At a June 29 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Kadish further explained that the testing program is designed to "walk before we run" and will become more challenging as it progresses. Gansler, in his June 28 testimony, said the Pentagon is "adding increasing sophistication to the decoys and to the system to counter those decoys as the system evolves." At the earlier June 20 briefing, Gansler admitted that when dealing with countermeasures and defenses, "this is a game where the offense clearly has an advantage."

Kadish, during his congressional appearances, expressed frustration at not being able to publicly engage critics by detailing how the system will overcome decoys because the relevant information is classified. Shortly after the release of the Postol letter, the Pentagon classified it, charging the letter revealed secret information—a point disputed by Postol, who said he obtained his data from declassified Pentagon documents.

Citing an executive order prohibiting use of the U.S. classification system to hide fraud or wrongdoing, 53 Democrats from the House of Representatives, including Minority Whip David Bonior (D-MI), sent a June 15 letter to FBI Director Louis Freeh calling for an investigation of the NMD program based on the Postol letter. Gansler, during his June 28 congressional testimony, characterized Postol's fraud charges as having "absolutely no basis." The FBI has not yet responded to the representatives' request.


New Calls for Delay

In a June 7 letter to the president, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili and former Senator Sam Nunn joined 12 other foreign policy experts to recommend that the NMD deployment decision be deferred. Citing "significant unresolved issues," such as cost, technology, and security policy implications, the authors urged the president "not to be forced by artificial deadlines" and suggested he pursue discussions with foreign countries and "vigorous diplomatic initiatives to reduce threats."

Two additional letters, one signed by 33 Russia experts and another by 45 China experts, also counseled the president against endorsing deployment this year. Dated June 9, the letter from the Russia experts, including former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Arthur Hartman, argued that NMD deployment "poses an implicit threat to Russia's deterrent force" and could "further aggravate U.S. relations with Russia." Expressing similar concerns, the June 29 letter assessing the possible Chinese reaction said a "precipitous" U.S. NMD deployment decision would likely serve as a "catalyst for China to accelerate nuclear weapons modernization." Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon dismissed these concerns June 29, arguing, "We anticipate that [China] will do that whether or not we deploy" an NMD system.

Clinton's decision is still scheduled for later this year despite the system's most recent test failure on July 8. (See p. 25.) Prior to this test, Gansler and Kadish had emphasized that a deployment decision could be made even with a test failure. "Depending upon the types of failures, we may still be able to say [this NMD system is] technically feasible," Gansler stated June 20. Such a determination would allow Clinton to authorize radar construction contracts this year.

However, according to the General Accounting Office, actual site construction cannot begin until the system achieves two intercepts because the Pentagon's own criteria for the system passing a deployment readiness review is two intercepts. To date, the system has one hit and two misses. A fourth intercept test is set for October or November.

The 1972 ABM Treaty prohibits national missile defenses capable of protecting a country's entire territory from strategic ballistic missiles or a base for such a defense. While the proposed defense would violate the treaty, there is no agreed understanding of at what point building the system becomes a clear violation. Administration lawyers have reportedly prepared legal arguments concluding early site preparation and construction activities would not constitute a violation. Clinton has stated he does not want to abrogate the treaty, and he is seeking negotiations with Russia to amend the treaty to permit the U.S. defense. (See p. 26.)