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Launch of a Ground-Based Interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2013. (Missile Defense Agency)

Can We Stop a Nuke?

From the impossible dream of a space-based shield, missile defense has come down to Earth. But will it work?

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ALTHOUGH OBERING TOLD REPORTERS that the test showed the United States now had a “good” chance of shooting down a North Korean missile, Marine Corps General James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, as head of U.S. Strategic Command—the man responsible for defending the United States against a missile attack—sounds less convinced of the chances for a real-world success.

“We have another year minimum of the [research and development] for the rudimentary system,” he says. “We want to be working with MDA to figure out what bugs are still there. What needs to be worked out? What tweaks?”

Cartwright would be on the front lines of any future missile attack. He is also the major customer of the tools MDA develops. The Army Space and Missile Defense Command, whose brigades fire the interceptors, is part of Strategic Command’s purview. Speaking about the missile defense system he may have to use, he is open in airing doubts: “Are there components that fail in 50 days instead of 100 days? When they fail am I left completely disadvantaged?”

Perhaps cognizant of the differing assessments of Obering, Cartwright, and others, President Bush split the difference in public comments after the test: The United States now had “a reasonable chance” to intercept the Taep’o-dong 2, he said. “At least that's what the military commanders told me.”

Some interested observers of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense test give the system an even smaller chance of success. Philip Coyle, 72, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, is now an advisor to the Center for Defense Information, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.

In August 2000, as assistant secretary of defense for test and evaluation at the Pentagon, Coyle advised President Bill Clinton not to develop or field the ground-based interceptors that would eventually become the centerpiece of Bush’s proposed missile defense plan. In Coyle’s opinion, too many unanswered questions about the system’s readiness remain.

He points to the lack of tests against countermeasures, delays in the advanced radar designed to differentiate decoys from warheads, and the small number of test successes as evidence that the system being developed could not handle a real-world threat.

“[The Missile Defense Agency] sort of dumbed-down the threat...because nobody believes they can handle 10, 20 or 100 missiles from North Korea,” he says.

Sending solitary target missiles into the air as targets and successfully intercepting them gives the American public and policymakers a dangerously false confidence in the system, he adds.

Indeed, with so many elements of the missile defense system still in development, the successful September test assumed only the simplest of threats—a single missile with no decoys or countermeasures. Earlier MDA tests used spoofing, including balloons in 2002 tests and specially designed parts that, after they break away from the missile, mimic warheads in shapes and temperatures. Coyle and other critics say the decoys are too easy to discern from the mock warheads, nullifying the positive results.

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