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Star Wars: The Next Version

By JAMES GLANZ (NYT) 2935 words
Published: May 4, 2004

Correction Appended

DELTA JUNCTION, Alaska - As early as this summer, rockets hidden in silos near this wind-swept town will give the nation its first operating defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles since the 1970's.

Although the system is not a secret, it has been revived with so little fanfare that few Americans seem to realize it exists.

Among warfare experts, it is reviving the type of bitter debate that began in the cold war, culminating in an antiballistic missile treaty. And it is inspiring the same sort of passion that arose during the national fixation with President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars effort, officially the Strategic Defense Initiative. Unlike Star Wars, which faded into the realm of misbegotten high-tech dreams, the new system relies on agile but fairly ordinary rockets to smash incoming warheads rather than nuclear-powered lasers in space. In the new debate, Pentagon planners see the system as a bulwark against the ultimate calamity, a nuclear attack, while skeptics ridicule it as a defense that will not work against a threat that does not exist.

The decades have not washed away the political dimension of a missile defense, either. Deploying the system will fulfill a campaign pledge by President Bush, as well as a more specific directive, issued in December 2002, that the nation have a functioning missile defense system by this year.

Critics of the system, which will cost $10 billion a year for the next five years and, potentially, hundreds of billions when the full defense envisioned by the Pentagon is installed, say it is being rushed before being fully tested. The critics call it a flawed defense against the ICBM's of yesteryear, not the suicide bombers and hijacked airplanes of the world since Sept. 11.

Nevertheless, the system is taking on hard reality in this remote town. On a sunny but numbingly cold day, six white domes rise like igloos within a double-perimeter fence topped by security cameras. Just across a road, the charred and denuded trunks of a fire-ravaged forest of black spruce appear to stand sentry. The folded blues and whites of the Alaska Range loom among wispy clouds off in the distance.

In this setting, the little domes are actually clamshell-shape doors that sit above silos dug 70 feet into the frozen earth. If one of the clamshells ever swings open to release a missile riding a tongue of flame, it will in all likelihood mean that the nation's leadership believes the United States has become the target of a nuclear attack.

The silos are empty, but two huge Manitowoc industrial cranes nearby should soon be outfitting some silos with three-stage interceptors. Once those interceptors, each topped with a bundle of thrusters and optical sensors called a kill vehicle, are hooked into a global network of radars, satellites, computers and command centers, one of Mr. Reagan's biggest dreams will be reality.

Critics of the shield find little hearing at the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, headed by Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, an Air Force pilot with long experience in developing military hardware like fighter jets. ''We should not choose to be vulnerable,'' General Kadish said in an interview. ''We have proven that from a technological standpoint and a practical standpoint we can intercept ballistic warheads in flight. And to say now that we can technologically defend ourselves and then choose not to is, in my view, a recipe for failure.''

A Space-Age Battering Ram

The first system will rely on interceptors in a handful of silos here at Fort Greeley, an Army base, and at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. In an attack, boosters would release the kill vehicle more than 100 miles above earth. With a heat-sensitive telescope, the vehicle would search the chill of space for the warhead, then maneuver with its thrusters and try to pulverize the weapon by simply ramming it at speeds faster than 20,000 miles an hour.

Even that description does little justice to the complexity of the system, which spans nine time zones and uses 13,000 miles of fiber optics to link sites as varied as a radar installation on the bleak island of Shemya in the Aleutians and in a secret command center at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo. If it works as planned, the system may take the honorary title of the biggest machine ever built from the nation's electrical grid.

As the nation discovered in the blackout last summer, of course, large machines can be unpredictable. The missile defense system, in fact, is so enormous and complex that it may never be fully tested unless an attack occurs. In highly controlled tests, the interceptors scored hits five times in eight tries.

Critics say a true adversary would deploy cleverly designed decoys or metallic chaff or huge balloons around the warhead that would easily confuse the defense.

''It's totally useless,'' said Dr. Richard L. Garwin, a physicist who has advised the government on security for nearly 50 years and who, in 1998, was on a panel led by Donald H. Rumsfeld, now defense secretary, to assess ballistic missile threats.

Dr. Garwin said the president was ''wasting money and he's impairing our security, because it will not work against ICBM's from anyone who has it in for the United States.''

Officials at the Missile Defense Agency have said the system was developed to stop what they characterize as unsophisticated threats from budding nuclear powers like North Korea, not the highly developed arsenals of Russia or China. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the election, not any imminent threat, was behind the decision to deploy before full tests.

''It's a date which obviously was set politically so they could say before the election that they've deployed a system,'' Mr. Levin said. ''I doubt that they'll say in that announcement that they'll deploy a system which may or may not work.''

Mr. Levin has also sharply criticized the administration's request for more than $500 million in the 2005 fiscal year to double its arsenal of interceptors, from 20 to 40, before any of the original batch has been tested. The first two tests of the full interceptor are scheduled for this summer.

''This is like deploying a military aircraft missing the wings, the tail and the landing gear,'' said Philip E. Coyle, a former chief of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon, who is a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information. ''And without testing to see if that aircraft can do its mission without wings, a tail or landing gear.''

The White House has repeatedly said the deployment timetable is based just on the system's technical readiness. Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, including its chairman, John W. Warner of Virginia, have voiced strong support.

The system has also found significant international support. England and Greenland are dedicating some radar sites to the program's early warning system.

In Japan, Parliament recently appropriated $1 billion toward a missile shield that would involve American-made radars and interceptors aboard its Aegis cruisers. The United States is talking with Australia about placing radar on its soil and more cruisers off its shores. The Bush administration spent $700 million in the 2004 fiscal year and has requested more than $1 billion in 2005 to develop the sea-based interceptor system, which would be deployed on American cruisers, as well.

Some experts point out that some of the harshest naysayers have barely changed their criticisms since Star Wars was proposed. That plan featured fanciful -- and largely impractical -- elements like nuclear-powered lasers based in space. A blanket dismissal on technical grounds no longer resonates as it once did, those experts say.

''Before, it was so grandiose, so complex, so big,'' said Steven A. Hildreth, a defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service. ''There was no real empirical evidence to support the contention that it was possible. Here, with this, at least we have some limited data points that can support the contention that these defenses can hit a warhead and destroy it.''

Aspiring to Grandiosity

The system has not entirely abandoned its claims to grandiosity. Beginning some time next year, the Pentagon expects to begin testing an advanced radar built on a heroic scale atop a floating oil platform so that it can rove about the world to provide high-resolution images of mock warheads and decoys in tests -- or the real McCoy. At a cost of $1 billion, the radar will tower nearly 300 feet above the water and include a deck almost the size of two football fields.

After being assembled on the Texas Gulf Coast, the radar will be too large to pass through the Panama Canal. It will have to motor around the tip of South America at an estimated nine knots to its primary base off Adak Island in the Aleutians.

Another futuristic component, an immensely powerful laser mounted in the nose of a Boeing 747 that would fly near hostile countries and try to zap their missiles to oblivion shortly after launching, has been repeatedly delayed by technical problems. Despite the setbacks, General Kadish of the Missile Defense Agency said, the laser ''represents such a revolutionary capability that we are going to stick to it.''

Major contractors on the project include Boeing, Bechtel and Raytheon, which is constructing the kill vehicles, each of which weighs 140 pounds and takes 18 to 24 months to build in a warren of high-tech clean rooms in Tucson. ''We're building them as we speak,'' said Dean Gehr, director of business development for missile defense programs at Raytheon Missile Systems.

Even if all elements of the giant program work just as in the computer simulations that the Pentagon is using to train the people who will operate the shield, some experts do not see the point. The cold war geopolitical landscape in which the system was conceived has shifted out from under it, said Dr. Dean A. Wilkening, director of the science program at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation.

''I don't understand the rush to deploy by 2004,'' Dr. Wilkening said. ''I simply don't see the threat.''

But with so much of the elaborate system in place and more on the way, Mr. Hildreth of the Congressional Research Service said, questions like that may no longer matter. ''I've sort of seen it as a juggernaut,'' he said. ''It's on a collision course with destiny, if you will.''

Armed at the Top of the World

That destiny starts in the Alaskan interior, 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks along a winding highway where Mount Hayes, elevation 13,832 feet, appears suddenly around a bend. A carved wood sign welcomes visitors to Delta Junction, ''America's Friendly Frontier.'' The town has a population of 980, and buffalo burgers are a local delicacy.

Why Alaska? ''Because it sits at the top of the world,'' General Kadish said, where the trajectories of virtually all ICBM's attacking the United States would pass. ''We can do the job better there, cheaper, in the long run, and be effective whether the warheads are coming from the east or the west.''

Building silos and the electronics and communications systems to operate them in this part of the world comes with other challenges, said Lt. Col. John K. Leighow of the Army Corps of Engineers and a deputy district engineer for the Ballistic Missile Defense Support Division.

The ground is loose and shifting, the construction season is short, and winter temperatures can reach 50 or 60 degrees below zero, so cold that tires on stationary vehicles can freeze overnight into irregular shapes and refuse to become round again.

After the first shovel of soil was turned over for the silos two years ago, the schedule left no time for error, Colonel Leighow said, adding: ''It was go, go, go. The biggest challenge we've had with this program has been schedule.''

A curious-looking yellow building with a white dome, for communicating with the interceptor, was built partly inside an immense cocoon to protect workers from the elements, he said. Hundreds of workers also built a large command center jammed with electronics next to the missile field, and two and a half miles of climate-controlled underground tunnels for pipes and utilities.

A project manager for Bechtel, Mike Hayner, said the shifty soil led contractors to use a novel method to build the silos. They drilled a series of holes 70 feet deep and 3 feet wide around what would become the perimeter of each silo, carefully squirting concrete slurry into each hole as they drilled to keep the holes from collapsing.

After the entire perimeter had been filled with concrete, the workers excavated the middle and outfitted it with a steel silo fabricated in the ''lower 48,'' at the Oregon Iron Works of Clackamas, Ore.

''We are shooting to be on alert by 30 September in response to the president's requirement to be on alert by the end of the year,'' said Col. Kevin Norgaard, director of the site activation command. ''We are where we need to be today, to be there.''

The missile defense system is extremely popular in Delta Junction, where the short-term closing of Fort Greeley struck a grave blow to the economy.

As the base reopens, Pete Hallgren, the city manager, said, ''The economic impact in our area is massive.'' In a town where the normal yearly operating budget runs to $250,000, the Defense Department has earmarked $25 million to help ease the impact on local services. The money will buy a new grade school, a library, a landfill and a fire station, as well as partly finance a recreation center, Mr. Hallgren said.

''I'm one of those true believers, who always thought we needed one,'' Mr. Hallgren said of a national missile defense.

Correction: May 13, 2004, Thursday An article in Science Times on May 4 about the United States' new antimissile system misspelled the name of an Army base in Alaska where silos are being built. It is Fort Greely, not Greeley.

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