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U.S.: Administration Surveys Technology Behind The Missile Defense System

The new U.S. administration will spend the next several months considering the possible deployment of a National Missile Defense (NMD) system to protect the United States and its allies against ballistic missile attacks from so-called "rogue nations." The $60 billion plan has won some wary acceptance in Europe but has been severely criticized by Russia -- which today presented NATO with its own plan for a European missile defense shield. In this two-part report, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky looks at the technology behind NMD and whether such a system can really work.

Prague, 20 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States' proposed National Missile Defense (NMD) system has its roots in earlier U.S. efforts to produce an anti-missile defense, the most notable of which was the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Proposed by President Ronald Reagan's administration in the 1980s, the SDI system -- dubbed "Star Wars" -- was designed to counter a massive missile attack by the Soviet Union by using thousands of small nuclear missiles orbiting the earth in satellites.

The initiative was abandoned long before it was ready for deployment. Many critics at the time said SDI was not technically feasible in any case. But just the threat of its potential deployment has been credited with prompting the Soviet Union to make deep cuts in its arms stockpile, hastening the end of the Cold War.

When U.S. defense systems were reviewed in 1990, a mass Soviet missile attack was no longer considered a threat. But a limited attack by terrorists or nations hostile to the U.S. was. The National Missile Defense program to counter such rogue attacks was initiated the following year.

The NMD project developed slowly until 1998, when Iran and North Korea both carried out tests using Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles. Other nations including Iraq were believed to have acquired similar capabilities.

The U.S. Defense Department spokesman for NMD, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Leaner, says that knowledge led the U.S. to place a higher priority on the project. Lehner says NMD could now be operational as early as 2005:

"The U.S. has no missile defense at all at this point in time and we believe that there are nations who are intent upon developing and making operational long-range missiles with weapons of mass destruction that could perhaps in a few years threaten the U.S. homeland as well as our friends and allies, and there comes a point when you take steps to ensure the safety of your people. And we're taking those steps now."

NMD has been referred to as the new "Star Wars." But Lehner says although NMD owes a lot to its 1980s predecessor, the challenges that such a defense system faces today are different:

"It must also be remembered that the SDI program was designed to defeat thousands of warheads from hundreds of missiles from the former Soviet Union, which is a threat that is not applicable today. But we've had tremendous benefit from the investment we made in SDI and indeed it has brought us to where we are today with advanced development effort for the current National Missile Defense technology."

NMD differs from SDI most significantly in that its missiles are surface -- and not satellite- -- based. NMD is also designed to destroy enemy warheads by colliding with them in space. The collision causes no nuclear explosion, and any remaining debris from either missile incinerates upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.

The ambitious NMD project brings together a variety of existing and developing ground- and space-based technology to detect, track, intercept, and destroy mid-flight hostile missiles launched at the U.S. and its allies.

Early detection is key to the system's success. Although existing spy satellites with fixed orbits and pre-set viewing areas can be used for the time being, they are due to be replaced within a decade by a space-based infrared system of maneuverable satellites.

On the ground, NMD plans to use five existing early-warning ground radar systems. It will also employ x-band radar, an advanced system now in development, that will be able to track precisely the path of an enemy missile and weed out decoy missiles launched alongside a real warhead.

NMD's intercept missile consists of two parts: a booster rocket to propel the missile to a position near the enemy warhead, and the so-called Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), which destroys the missile by colliding with it.

The EKV is one of the most innovative components of NMD. Many say it is also its weakest link. After separating from its booster rocket, the EKV must rely on its own propulsion, guidance and communication systems while still receiving updated information from the NMD command center on Earth.

The system was given three test-runs during the Clinton administration, but only the first was successful. Lehner says the other two attempts failed because of relatively minor technical problems.

"The current program is very much on track. Right now we're preparing for our fourth intercept attempt, perhaps late this spring or early summer. Our first intercept test in October 1999 was very successful. We intercepted the mock warhead going more than 15,000 miles per hour (23,000 kilometers per hour) over the Pacific Ocean. Now we had two subsequent tests that failed, not because of the technology, but because of minor hardware (equipment) difficulties and a bit of bad luck."

However, many scientists believe that some of the scientific and technological questions facing the National Missile Defense system may be impossible to overcome. In the second part of this report, to come out tomorrow, we examine those potential problems.