– Dr R. Brahmachari
THIS year, America is going to implement its highly controversial missile defence programme. The system is based on shooting down enemy missiles at the mid-course of their trajectories by hitting them with interceptor missiles. It is more or less the same system proposed by the Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1980s, whose plans, popularly known as “Star Wars” programme, were shelved for years by the Democrats simply because for political reasons. This year ten interceptors, designed to knock down long-range ballistic missiles fired by hostile nations, will be installed in California and Alaska. Another ten are to follow in the next year. In addition to that, ten more systems will be installed in near future intended to provide limited defence against attacks with short and medium range missiles.
The systems that are going to be installed this year are specially designed to counter threats emanating from the North-East Asian countries (should be read China and North Korea), and by 2005, improved systems are expected to be installed to tackle threats originating from Middle East, mainly Iran and other potential Islamic rogue states. By 2005, another important element is expected to be operational, designed to destroy short and medium range missiles with interceptors fired from ships.
Political observers are, on the other hand, more or less convinced that President George W. Bush is determined to unveil the so-called “Missile Defence Agency” (MDA), particularly in this year, only for political reasons. It will enable him to tell his voters that America, under the present Bush Administration, is closer than never before to fulfil its dream of creating a nuclear shield. On the other hand, Democrats will also utilise the opportunity to tell their voters and win them over by telling them that “a bullet can never be stopped by another bullet” and the Republicans are trying to confuse the Americans by providing them with a false sense of security by spending billions. “It will provide little protection in return of exorbitant spending”, says a Democrat Senator. “If America can put a man on the moon, then why should it not be able to hit a bullet with another bullet?” asks a Republican enthusiast.
Many of the critics, on the other hand, believe that MDA, which President Bush is going to unveil, is a rudimentary system. In theory, an incoming enemy missile will be detected by a satellite using infrared sensors soon after its launch and its trajectory will be tracked by the ground-based radar systems. Then an interceptor missile will be despatched either from California or from Alaska. Finally the “exo-atmospheric kill vessel” (EKV) will separate from the intercepting missile and collide with the enemy missile at a speed of nearly 15,000 miles per hour, at an altitude well above the atmosphere (see front page picture).
It may be recalled that on 15th July, 2001, the US defence department successfully shot down a mock enemy missile with a test interceptor missile over the Pacific Ocean. The mock warhead called Minuteman-II was lifted into space from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 10:40 p.m. and the interceptor missile was launched 21 minutes and 34 seconds later from the Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall island, nearly 7,725 km away. As expected, the intercepting missile knocked down the said mock warhead about 225 km above the Central Pacific, well above the earth'satmosphere, while the combined speed of the two reached nearly 25,750 km per hour and the impact was so powerful that the target vehicle was vaporised after the collision. Ronald Kadish, the then head of the Pentagon'sBallistic Missile Defence Organisation, had expressed his satisfaction over the outcome of the test and said that it was a positive step forward towards building a multilayered anti-missile defence shield over the US. “Two out of three previous such $100 million tests have failed. Most recently, such a test was undertaken on 8th July, 2000”, he told the reporters.
But according to the sceptics, the test was merely a baby test because the target missile did not incorporate the kinds of sophisticated decoys that a real enemy missile would use to confuse any possible anti-missile defence system.
It may be recalled here that the initiative to create an umbrella to protect the American mainland against ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads may be traced to the Cold War era, when in 1983, President Ronald Reagn in his iconic “Star Wars” speech appealed to American engineers and scientists: “I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace-to give us means for rendering nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete”. So the mission began to protect America from a possible Soviet Union missile attack by covering it with an anti-missile shield using satellite-based laser sensors and interceptors, more widely known as the “Star Wars” programme.
But after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent end of the Cold War era, the project lost its momentum and was completely abandoned when the Democrat President Bill Clinton assumed office. It may be mentioned here that the Democrats were hostile to the very idea of a protection shield and argued that such a protection system can never be made absolutely fool-proof and hence, it could provide a false sense of security in return for colossal spending.
But in the middle of 1999, the question of reviving the same arose again as an intensely contentious issue and in the last week of June, President Bill Clinton, yielding to Congressional pressure, signed a bill that called for building an anti-missile shield over America as soon as it was technologically feasible. He, however, slashed nearly $20 billion from President, Reagan'soriginal budget and sanctioned merely $6.6 billion for the project. Political observers at that time said that the President did it keeping the Presidential election in 2000 in view. Finally, President George W. Bush, just after assuming office, announced that his government would lay emphasis on creating an anti-missile umbrella through the revival of the abandoned “Star Wars” programme.
In fact, American leaders are now concerned more about Chinese and North Korean threats rather than Russian ones. In August 1999, Pyonyang underscored the danger when it fired its Taepo Dong-I missile that fell into the Pacific after flying over Japan. According to experts, the missile could reach Alaska with a heavy payload and with a lighter payload it could hit even California. The threat was so grave that William Cohen, the then Secretary of Defence, became nervous and expressed his desire in favour of an immediate revival of the anti-missile defence programme.
Hardly a year later, China on December 21, 2000, successfully tested its Dong Feng-31 missile, capable of delivering a 3.5 megaton thermonuclear device at a distance of 5,000 miles, bringing the entire American mainland under its footprint. More frighteningly, Chinese were then busy with the task of developing Dong Feng-41 type missile capable of hitting a target 8,000 miles away.
However, the announcement of unveiling the said MDA programme this year triggered a mixed response among the American leaders. Philip Coyle, former Pentagon'sDirector of Operational Test and Evaluation (OTE) and presently a senior official at the Centre for Defence Information (CDI), while commenting on the announcement, said, “With such rudimentary system America'schances of shooting down real enemy missiles, in near future, are practically zero.” “The system that will come into operation is definitely modest and rudimentary”, says a senior defence official. “The flight tests that so far have been conducted produced mixed results”, he adds. “These tests were too easy, failing to simulate the speed and altitude of real life enemy missiles and the sort of decoys that they might release”, says a Pentagon official.
Most of the critics of President Bush maintain that politics and not science is the stimulant for launching the MDA programme. Andrew Krepinvich of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (a military think tank), says that MDA should concentrate more on research. Otherwise, the system may prove to be a failure. Many Republican leaders, on the other hand, appreciate the decision of launching MDA and believe that “mere idea of ?Star Wars? helped defeat the Soviet Evil Empire and in a likewise manner, MDA would help dissuade some rogue countries from developing missiles”. Their main argument in favour of MDA is that it is a positive step to deter the rogue states like North Korea and other evil forces like Islamic terrorism. “Even a rudimentary missile defence system would confuse and frustrate these evil forces”, says Frank Gaffney of the Centre for Security Policy. But most of the Democrat leaders consider that the entire scheme is wasteful and misconceived.
It has been pointed out earlier that many disapprove the MDA as it involves large spending. It is estimated that initially the project would cost around $9 billion a year for next 5 years and this will add to the defence budget which has already risen from $400 to $500 billion a year. Many apprehend that the cost of deploying and operating the entire MDA project might amount to $1 trillion a year. Democrats suggest that the money could be better spent on enhancing homeland security measures and countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The initiative to create an umbrella to protect the American mainland against ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads may be traced to the Cold War era. The mission was started to protect America from a possible Soviet Union missile attack by covering it with an anti-missile shield using satellite-based laser sensors and interceptors, more widely known as the “Star Wars” programme.
The MDA system is based on shooting down enemy missiles at the mid-course of their trajectories by hitting them with interceptor missiles.