TCS Daily


No Defense -- and No Excuse

By Henry Cooper - May 8, 2001 12:00 AM

Why did Israel's anti-missile program succeed so much faster than America's?

Key technology for building non-nuclear missile defenses was demonstrated 15 years ago. Yet despite spending nearly $60 billion on a variety of missile-defense programs since Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative in March 1983, America still has no operational defense system beyond the Patriot used in the Gulf War.

This fact seems inexcusable - especially when you consider what Israel has been able to accomplish in the meantime.

Last month, I attended a reception at the Israeli Embassy in Washington to celebrate the development of Israel's "Arrow" ballistic-missile-defense system, which became operational last fall. Arrow development began in earnest on my watch as SDI Director, in response to Iraqi Scud attacks on Israel.

The Israeli record shows what can be done with persistent, enduring political will and competent technical and management skill, even in the face of limited resources.

Indisputably, Israel has had unwavering political will since the Gulf War demonstrated its vulnerability to missile attack. Israeli leaders of different political parties all strongly support the need to defend the Israeli people. After early test failures, the Arrow program management and engineering team got its act together. Several successful tests led to Arrow's operational status last year.

For less than $2 billion (three-quarters of which came from the U.S. taxpayer), Israel now has its own homeland defense against ballistic missiles - a capability shared only by Russia.

Contrast this with America's development of the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, intended to protect our overseas troops against missile attack. Development began at about the same time. THAAD already has cost the U.S. taxpayer several times what the Israelis spent on Arrow, and recent Pentagon reports say it will be 2007 before THAAD achieves operational capability - no doubt with a doubling of our investment to date.

THAAD also has had bipartisan support - sufficient to press ahead even after its first six flight tests ended in failure. (The primary cause of those failures: inadequate quality control and errors in employing technology that U.S. engineers mastered more than 30 years ago.) As with Arrow, the THAAD engineers eventually succeeded. After two consecutive successful tests in June and August 1999, THAAD entered full-scale engineering development.

Why should it take until 2007 to begin THAAD operations, some 15 years after formal R&D began - almost twice the time it took Israel to build its first Arrow defensive base? THAAD is more sophisticated, to be sure, but it should not take twice as long to build, especially given our much larger investment.

We need technical and management personnel who understand what it takes to build and test complex systems rapidly - and not only for THAAD. In particular, we need a streamlined engineering management organization to rapidly build sea-based defenses to protect not only our overseas troops, friends and allies, but Americans at home.

With the right management and technical skills, the Navy can provide our earliest opportunity to join Israel and Russia with our own homeland defense and begin protecting U.S. cities against ballistic missiles. The Navy should adopt an engineering-management approach like the Polaris project, which built our first strategic nuclear submarine and its associated submarine-launched ballistic missile in only four years in the late '50s and early '60s. That was a far more daunting engineering challenge than building sea-based missile defenses is today.

With modest additional funding ($2 billion to $3 billion), a new Navy team that adopts the rigorous, risk-mitigating engineering discipline of the original Polaris team can build and begin operating wide-area sea-based defenses in three to four years. Also like Polaris, such initial sea-based defenses could be improved - e.g., with faster booster rockets and more capable interceptor kill vehicles (again at modest cost) - to provide a robust global defense.

President Bush wants to build effective missile defenses at the earliest possible date - as, indeed, the 1999 National Missile Defense Act commands him to do. Meeting his goal demands a commitment to use top engineering skills, necessary resources and persistent, enduring political will to get the job done.

That's what worked for the Israelis and in America's past high-priority development programs. It will work again - but only as soon as it's tried, not sooner.

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