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?
- By Ben Iannotta
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
Missile Defense Agency
(Page 4 of 7)
Until new sensors are created, finding the real warheads among the decoys requires a shotgun approach: “If I can’t discriminate what’s a decoy and what’s a warhead, I have to launch interceptors at both of those objects,” Obering says.
But in September 2006, the goal was to direct a single kill vehicle to a single target warhead, using upgraded tracking radar at Beale Air Force Base in California. The Beale radar was built during the cold war to bounce radar waves off incoming Soviet missiles with just enough fidelity to tell the president: “We have a missile and it’s going to impact in the New York or Chicago area,” Obering says.
During the hiatus between launches, the missile agency put engineers and software experts to work installing new computer processors and software to enable the cold war radar to track objects with greater precision. Similar work is under way at the Fylingdale early-warning radar installation in England, enabling it to track missiles that might be launched westward from Iran. New sea-based platforms will supplement the early-warning radars. The more eyes available, the better, say planners.
The Beale radar upgrades were but one of many technical goals of September’s test. An underlying goal was to restore confidence in the missile agency itself. Obering’s reputation was riding on the 55-foot-long missile streaking across the Pacific, receiving guidance (he hoped) from the radar at Beale.
As the witnesses watched, the red and blue lines of the missile flight paths closed in on each other. Suddenly, 23 minutes and 20 seconds into the test, the altitude and velocity numbers froze.
Through an audio link Obering could hear the jubilant reaction inside the fire control room at Schriever Air Force Base near Colorado Springs. “Everybody started screaming,” he says. “We knew we had achieved the intercept.”
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?”