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?

Launch of a Ground-Based Interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2013. (Missile Defense Agency)
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The first midcourse intercept of Obering’s tenure was supposed to take place on December 15, 2004, but on that day the interceptor never appeared. A launch computer refused to let the interceptor leave its test silo on Kwajalein. The $10 million test target, already arcing through the fringes of space, fell into the sea.

Orbital Sciences Corporation, the interceptor’s Dulles, Virginia manufacturer, had programmed the rocket with the tolerances of a satellite launcher. When a few status reports failed to reach the interceptor’s flight control computer, it aborted the launch as though there were an expensive satellite aboard. The problem was fixed by writing a new line of computer code.

Obering’s team tried again in February 2005. This time the interceptor refused to leave the silo when one of three support arms designed to keep the rocket upright during an earthquake failed to retract. Another $10 million target was wasted. Shoddy work at Kwajalein was blamed for allowing saltwater to seep into the base of the silo, making the air humid and causing glue in the support arms’ hinges to swell.

After that, even the most vocal supporters of the missile defense plan advocated by President George W. Bush blasted Obering’s agency. One Republican congressman from Alaska, Terry Everett, then chairman of the subcommittee that oversees missile defense, declared that he and his fellow members “were disgusted by the failings, because to be honest with you, it didn’t appear to be brain science.”

Inside the missile agency’s headquarters in September 2006, the red line of the target grew on the display map for 16 minutes and 40 seconds before a blue line appeared on the southern California coast: A brigade with the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command had launched a single long-range interceptor from a silo at the Vandenberg base. So far, so good—at least the interceptor was airborne.

IF THE UNITED STATES comes under attack, plans call for interceptor missiles in Air Force bases at Vandenberg and Fort Greely in Alaska to roar out of holes in the ground to the fringes of space, where they would release the 155-pound kill vehicles.

Even as interceptors are being deployed—the U.S. has already fielded 14 interceptors in Alaska and two in California—the Missile Defense Agency must continue to develop the system through a series of $100 million tests. To accomplish this, the agency has a $10 billion annual budget that by 2016 is expected to climb to $15 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

When one looks at what must go right in the first minutes of an actual attack, it’s easy to see why Obering’s job is unenviable, and his agency’s budget so vast.

An attack would first be detected by U.S. Defense Support Program satellites, which sense the infrared radiation of enemy missiles rising from their launch pads. The first generation of this system was launched in the 1970s, but upgrades in new satellites have brought modern capabilities to the space imager system.

The satellites would tell ground radars where to look in the sky to find the enemy rockets after their engines burned out. The ground radars—someday to be augmented with sophisticated ground and space sensors—would transmit tracking coordinates to U.S. Strategic Command control rooms in Alaska and Colorado, where members of a specially formed Army brigade would pull the trigger on the interceptor missiles.


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