TCS Daily


Brick by Brick

By Robert Jastrow - December 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Recent newspaper headlines underscore the need for an effective missile defense.

The shipment of North Korean missiles bound for Yemen confirms the proliferation of missile technology. Nations like Iran, Iraq and North Korea are acquiring such technologies, may already have the domestic manufacturing capabilities needed to deploy long-range missiles capable of striking the United States with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and obviously are willing to share these technologies with other nations and terrorists. Terrorist groups and their state sponsors are working feverishly to acquire WMD capabilities.

Ample evidence documents the lengths to which these groups will go to inflict harm upon the United States. We, as a nation, would be irresponsible if, knowing these facts, we did nothing to protect ourselves.

With the test of the ground-based mid-course defense system, or GMD, last Wednesday, the United States took yet another step on the road leading to the eventual construction of an effective defense against ballistic missiles. Even though the most recent test did not achieve the high-profile intercept of the target missile, it should hardly be called a failure. Last Wednesday's test is the eighth in three years. Of those eight tests, five resulted in the destruction of the target missile, including the last four in a row prior to this most recent test.

Coupled with this string of successful intercepts is the steady expansion of the system's detection and tracking capabilities. With the construction of a test-bed complex at Fort Greely, Ala., in 2004, an even more extensive test program will be possible. The program already has demonstrated every important technology needed for an operational missile defense system.

Why did last week's test fail to intercept the target missile? The exoatmospheric kill vehicle, or EKV, and its booster rocket failed to separate, preventing the EKV from destroying the target warhead. The separation failure may end up being attributed to an electrical problem or some other malfunction.

A similar problem arose during the July 2000 flight test. This failure was due to a failure in an electrical module aboard a Minuteman II rocket used by the U.S. military for decades. It has little to do with the operation of a missile defense system. The focus of the GMD program now shifts to the development and testing of a new, three-stage launch vehicle for the EKVs. The EKV launch vehicle used in last Wednesday's test will be replaced by a new design.

The competing designs draw on proven commercial space launch technologies and should eliminate most of the problems encountered with the Minuteman II rocket used by the missile defense program. What may be overlooked in the rush to label last week's test a "failure" are the important new dimensions added to the sensor and tracking systems, which are essential to locating the attacking missile and directing the interceptor to it. The test incorporated Aegis radar and elements of the theater missile defense program. Particularly noteworthy in the recent test is the inclusion of an Airborne Laser, or ABL, prototype. With further development, the ABL is designed to locate and track an attacking missile and fire a high-energy laser, destroying the enemy missile during its initial or "boost" phase, near enemy launch areas, and before the missile can deploy decoys.

Critics claim the missile defense tests are not challenging enough and contain unrealistic elements. The conclusions drawn from such claims are overstated. Tests planned for 2003 and beyond will encompass increasingly more realistic operational environments and include new launch technologies to overcome the separation problem.

What must not be forgotten is that the tests to date have demonstrated the key capabilities of the system, including the ability to hit a target missile consistently and the successful integration of a nationwide command and communications system.

The missile defense program has achieved much and with each additional test more can be achieved. Just as you build a wall by laying one brick at a time, so too the missile defense system is being built one test at a time. If each brick is placed properly you will end up with a very solid wall. So too it can be with our missile defense system. By building on the knowledge gained from these tests, this program will build on its present momentum and continue to move steadily forward toward a defense capable of protecting the United States from ballistic missile threats posed by terrorists, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, or others who may wish us harm.

Robert Jastrow is chair, and Jeff Kueter is executive director of, the Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank created "to encourage the use of sound science in making public policy." Jastrow is the founder and was for 20 years director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
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