How the Pentagon Fixed the Star Wars Test

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

After pledging to veto this year’s Pentagon budget, on October 25 Bill Clinton obediently put his name to $267.7 billion worth of waste and theft. Included in this immense sum is no less than $3.3027 billion for ballistic missile defense research and development. Nothing so clearly summarises Bill Clinton’s abject surrender to the Pentagon and its congressional/industrial partners throughout his tenure than his support of thes Star Wars program. Launched amid frenzierd acclaim by arms profiteers by Ronald Reagan in 1983, this baroque endeavor has to date consumed some $55 billion with no discernible result. Clinton is now endeavoring to persuade the Russians to “amend” the anti-ballistic missile treaty, which explicitly forbids a star wars system of the type currently under development, by invoking the putative menace of North Korean and Iranian missiles raining down on North America, or Russia. The Russians have rejected his proposal out of hand.

It should go without saying that the U.S. will never produce a workable anti-missile defense system, since the technical obstacles are insuperable, but Clinton is too ignorant or timid to acknowledge the fact. Hence, on October 14, the President declared: ” I do think it is the responsible thing to do to continue to pursue what appears to be far more promising than many had thought — including me a few years ago — in terms of missile defense.”

The “promising” features of Star Wars are hard to find, unless Clinton, like many other credulous souls, was taken in by the shrieks of triumph from the Pentagon following a National Missile Defense test on October 2. In the test, an “Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle” (EKV) fired from Kwajalein Island in the South Pacific managed to hit a re-entry vehicle launched on an ICBM from Vandenberg AFB in California. Deferential press reports spoke of this supreme achievement in “hitting a bullet with a bullet”, and even professional quotewright John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, who has ridden high on Star Wars critiques, agreed that the military had achieved “the equivalent of shooting a hole-in-one”.

An internal assessment from inside a Pentagon agency, supplied by a Friend of CounterPunch, tells a very different story. Short of roping the interceptor and its target together, the architects of this $100 million exercise could hardly have done more to ensure the success of the operation. As the assessment (summarised by our friend as “how operationally meaningful the test was not”) notes: “Because the ICBM was launched from California toward the mid-Pacific Ocean — an outbound trajectory instead of the inbound trajectory of an ICBM attack — the (beefed up early warning radar) in California acquired the target at close range with high signal-to-noise. In a real ICBM attack the radar would have had to detect the target at long range with low signal-to-noise.” In other words, the radar had a much better opportunity to spot the target because it was leaving from right next door instead of approaching from far over the horizon. “The re-entry vehicle (RV — ie the target) was tracked by an on- board C-band beacon and GPS. Ground track radars were neither needed nor used to guide the EKV.”

This means that the target was conveniently broadcasting its position both via the radar beacon and the Global Positioning System, enabling the testers to guide the interceptor, as our friend puts it “into the basket”. The Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO) swears blind that these useful aids were not employed to steer the EKV interceptor right up to its final collision with the target. Oh no! Most certainly not! The target and its killer were merely steered “near” to each other before the $20 million EKV made whatever final adjustments were necessary using its own guidance system before closing for a 15,000 mph impact, generating a deadly shower of press releases across the northern hemisphere.

“The only penetration aid in the target suite was a large balloon. Because the large balloon had a significantly higher infrared signature than the RV, it allowed the EKV to acquire the target complex at long range and it was easy to discriminate from the RV.” A “penetration aid” is a decoy, and Star Wars critics have long postulated that such decoys, spewed out by ICBMs as they simultaneously lob off their real and deadly payloads, would totally hornswoggle the national missile defenders. Thus the fact that the October 2 test had actually incorporated a penetration aid was an item of especial self-congratulation in the post test victorygrams. However, as the internal Pentagon assessment notes, a single large balloon actually had the (intended) effect of rendering the interceptor’s job much easier, since it could spot the “target complex” — target plus big, highly visible, balloon-at long range and then, when it came time to decide which to destroy, easily tell the real target from the conveniently dissimilar decoy.

“The closing velocity was lower than a typical ICBM engagement
would have been”– That is, easier to hit something if it is going slowly. “The ICBM apogee was higher than most threat ICBM apogees would be. Lower apogees would be more stressing because the NMD system would have less time to react”. This means that they shot the target high into space, making it much easier to spot and track.

Such nit-picking doubts and caveats went unmentioned in the public analyses and it is unlikely that anyone bothered to divulge them to the Commander in Chief. Nor, in all likelihood, has anyone bothered to tell Clinton about the grave problems facing the linchpin of the entire missile defense system as presently envisaged. In an artfully cosy phrase, the Pentagon describes Star Wars, Clinton-era version, as a “family of systems,” with successive layers of missile interceptors countering anything the North Koreans or the Ayatollahs can throw at us. However, the whole structure depends on a satellite warning and tracking system known as the Space Based Infra Red Systems-SBIRS, or, to the initiated, “Sibbers”.

Sibbers, on paper at least, consists of 30 satellites, 6 in high orbit and 24 in low orbit. The six at high altitude would have the function of spotting the enemy missile as it is launched, while those lower down would have to decide whether an object is a threat (after being alerted by its higher consort), track the missile, discriminate a warhead from decoys, communicate with ground tracking stations and more. Little wonder, as John Donnelly reported in Defense Week a year ago, the $7.5 billion program is growing in cost at the rate of $1 billion a year and that even the Pentagon’s official in charge of testing admits that it is “untestable”.

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has tried and failed to develop four different warning and tracking networks. The Sibbers program is the fifth, and seasoned observers have no doubt it will follow the fate of its forbears, to be joined by the other components of ballistic missile defense on a costly junkheap. In the meantime however the ABM treaty will probably have been torn up as other prospects for global disarmament, already dim, turned to a distant memory.

Next July, Clinton will be faced with what should be an easy decision. He has promised to announce at that time whether or not to proceed with full scale star wars deployment, which a nervous Pentagon say they might be able to get underway by 2005. The correct answer from the Oval Office should be a resounding “No”. But it would be folly to expect such courage from the present incumbent. CP

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