While the new Bush administration mulls its missile defense options, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has approved continued work on the Clinton administration's limited national missile defense (NMD) system. The Pentagon is tentatively planning to conduct two NMD flight tests within the next four months. Rumsfeld has made no statement on the Clinton system, but Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Craig Quigley said February 6 that Rumsfeld's guidance to the director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) was to "press on." BMDO is charged with overseeing U.S. missile defense programs.
Last September, then-President Bill Clinton decided not to begin deployment of his proposed missile defense, deferring the decision to his successor. Clinton, who cited doubts about the technology and spoke at length about international opposition and concerns, did ask the Pentagon to continue researching and testing the system, which, if approved, would be initially comprised of 20 ground-based missile interceptors deployed in Alaska. Eventually, this first-phase deployment would total 100 missile interceptors.
BMDO is gearing up for the first flight test of the booster that is being developed to carry the NMD system's exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) into space. Once it separates from the booster, the EKV is designed to seek out and collide with an incoming warhead. All NMD flight tests thus far have used a surrogate booster.
Previously scheduled for early last year, the booster test, which will not include an intercept attempt, has been delayed by several issues related to integrating all of the booster elements. For example, a new "vibration dampening system" is being added to reduce the physical stresses that will be put on the EKV by the new booster's acceleration, which is greater than that of the surrogate booster. In a November 1999 report, an independent review panel questioned whether the EKV would be able to withstand the more severe vibrations and accelerations of the system's actual booster.
The system's next intercept attempt, which will still use a surrogate booster, could occur this coming May or June, according to BMDO. Of the three intercept attempts to date, the system has had one successful hit, which a top Pentagon program reviewer last year attributed, in part, to a large decoy balloon near the target that helped the EKV locate the mock warhead.
Despite the system's mixed test results and program delays, Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), a leading ballistic missile defense proponent, prodded President George W. Bush on February 14 to "move forward as fast as we can with the technology we have today." To demonstrate U.S. determination, Cochran said construction should begin on the system's X-band radar, which would track and discriminate incoming warheads.
The X-band radar is to be built on Shemya, a remote Aleutian island that is largely inaccessible for most of the year and has a short construction period due to severe weather conditions. Because of these conditions, building the radar will take more time than assembling the rest of the system's components, which is why Clinton had to decide last fall whether to authorize the beginning of construction in order to meet a 2005 deployment date. Clinton's deferral pushed the earliest possible deployment date back to 2006.
Even if Bush opts quickly to deploy the Clinton defense, which he described as inadequate during the campaign, starting actual construction this year would be "highly, highly unlikely," according to a BMDO spokesperson. The same official said that "maybe some site preparation" could be done for the X-band radar. To enable construction of the proposed Clinton defense to get fully underway next year, Bush would need to approve work before this December.