Saturday, August 09, 2003

Here's how we can save $10 billion a year with one stroke of a pen. Cancel SDI!
If the generals in charge of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency followed the wispiest trail of logic, they would have slashed the program and moved on to more promising pursuits long ago. This month brings yet another bit of news indicating not only that the program has scant chance of producing a workable missile-defense system, but that its managers know of its dim prospects.

The latest flash, from the Aug. 1 edition of the trade journal Defense News, is that the agency has suspended one of the program's most crucial components on the grounds that the technology it involves is "not mature enough" to fund.

The component is called the space-based kinetic-energy boost-phase interceptor, a name that sounds too esoteric to deserve notice (and, indeed, no mainstream paper seems to have picked up on the report of its suspension), but in fact the news is a bombshell.

The missile-defense program—for which President Bush is spending $9.1 billion next year alone, with steady increases planned in future years to infinity—envisions, ultimately, a three-layered system. The boost-phase interceptors will shoot down enemy missiles in the first three or four minutes after they've been launched, as they ascend through the atmosphere into the edge of outer space. The "midcourse-defense interceptors" will fire at the missiles during the 20 minutes that they arc across the heavens. The "terminal-defense interceptors" will shoot down the missiles that survive the earlier layers in their final minutes of flight, as they plunge back down to earth toward their targets.


In short, even the most apparently straightforward aspects of a missile-defense system are turning out to be hugely—perhaps insuperably—complex, expensive, and operationally dubious. And the APS doesn't even get into the issues of "battle management" (how to convey signals from the early warning sensors to the weapons, how to fire the weapons, how to determine whether the target was hit, and thus whether more weapons need to be fired). Nor, more seriously still, does it outline the complications of dealing with an enemy that's resourceful enough to fire more than one missile.

At what point does someone calculate that the whole project is so drenched in fantasy that it isn't worth the trouble of getting it started?