TCS Daily


Missile Defense Is an Engineering Challenge, Not Rocket Science

By Henry Cooper - June 11, 2001 12:00 AM

Last Thursday, President George W. Bush made national news by telling the folks in Dallas Center, Iowa, that he plans this week to point out to European leaders and the Russians that if a rogue nation fires a missile at any of us, "We must be able to shoot that missile down." And the President correctly identified the main obstacle preventing American engineers from building the most effective defenses possible-the ABM Treaty and the "stale" Cold War theology of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) on which it is based. These comments add emphasis to Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's earlier warning to NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Budapest that changing or scraping the ABM Treaty in order to deploy an effective defense is "simply inescapable."

The President observed that "Russia is no longer our enemy and, therefore, we shouldn't be locked into a Cold War mentality that says we keep the peace by blowing each other up." And he emphasized, "It's time to think differently about defense" for the 21st century.

As if on cue, the new Senate Majority Leader-while trying to appear as a statesman by encouraging the President to work through his plans with our allies-was quick to ridicule the President's vision as "backward," "troubling," and devoid of "common sense."

Apparently, a BA Degree from South Dakota State not only gives Senator Tom Daschle some measure of "common sense," it also qualifies him an engineer, justifying his related assertions on technical matters-reported as authoritative: "This isn't rocket science, here." Then, according to the press, he corrected himself: "Yes, it is rocket science, now that I think about it. That's the problem-hadn't thought about that. But as I think out loud, as I meander through here, that's the problem."

This might be a try at humor-but it still illustrates the truth of that old adage about the need to "engage one's brain before putting one's mouth in gear."

The fact is the proof-of-principle experiments that justify the President's and the Defense Secretary's decisions to move forward with engineering development and deployment were conducted beginning over 15 years ago. Building effective defenses is an engineering task, not a scientific one, as many critics are now trying to allege.

Says High Frontier's Chairman and Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) during the first Bush Administration, Ambassador Henry F. Cooper: "The leadership of the 1991 Democrat-controlled congress understood that the technology was then sufficiently mature to direct us, by law in the Missile Defense Act of 1991, to build a missile defense for the U.S. homeland as soon as possible-and in 1992, the same Democrat-controlled congress acknowledged in the fiscal year 1993 Authorization Act that our SDI program to accomplish this objective by as early as in 2000 was "low-to-moderate" risk. The Clinton Administration scuttled those programs it inherited and only reluctantly, under pressure from Republican congressional leaders during the past three years, revived anemically funded development activities for far less robust defenses. Now, it is more than a little disingenuous for the Democrat leadership to feign that there is no basis for moving ahead as quickly as we can. Many current Democrat leaders were there in 1992 and should know their current criticisms lack merit."

Cooper, a PhD engineer, also observes that most recent test failures resulted from "engineering discipline failures in employing technology that was mastered 30 or more years ago." More importantly, he observes that the problem with the ABM Treaty is that it precludes the testing of the most effective, least expensive system concepts that could be built fastest-if we have the political will to remove the Treaty constraints.

For example, he notes: "From an engineering perspective, defensive interceptors could just as easily be launched from the surface of ships as from ground sites in the United States." Since we already paid to build and operate the ships around the world, upgrading them would cost far less than building a new ground-based system, and they could be operational sooner. If operated near the coast of threatening nations-such as North Korea, one ship could protect the entire world by intercepting attacking missiles as they rise from their launch pads. But such low-cost, potentially very effective near-term defenses cannot even be tested under the terms of the ABM Treaty. That's why it must go.

Building effective defenses is rocket science. American engineers can do the job if the lawyers and politicians will stick to lawyering and politicing to remove political obstacles-most importantly, the ABM Treaty.

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