Pentagon’s $50 Billion Smart Rock Fails IQ Test

On January 18, the Pentagon’s second
test of its national missile defense system (NMD), known as the Smart Rock,
failed to hit its mark.

The Senate and House of Representatives both passed measures in March of last
year to commit billions of dollars to the deployment of the NMD system as
soon as technologically possible. Although January’s test—the second
in a series of three planned by the Pentagon—failed this time around,
the Smart Rock system nonetheless boasts a formidable cheering section. To
defense industry lobbyists who have contributed huge sums of money to Bill
Clinton—and, for that matter, to presidential candidates on both sides—the
Smart Rock represents the centerpiece in the Pentagon’s relentless effort
to both justify and inflate its already overblown budget.

A sort of renovated relic of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative—also
known as Star Wars—the Clinton administration, left to its own devices,
seems determined to go ahead with deployment of the Smart Rock system—possibly
as early as this summer.

Recently, in an effort to put a positive face on the failed NMD experiment,
State Department spokesperson James Rubin told reporters in Washington that,
“the (Clinton) administration always understood that developing and testing
a missile system like this in a relatively short period of time would be an
enormously complex challenge.” Rubin also said that (in testing the system),
“essentially what you’re trying to do is…shoot a bullet with a
bullet…and having success when that bullet has a closing speed of 14,000
miles per hour…this is an enormously difficult challenge.”

The first test of the system took place in October 1999. It was billed as
a success because the missile managed to hit its target. But scientists at
the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) say that hit was more likely attributable
to dumb luck than to a Smart Rock. In a real attack, the system would have
to contend with simple but devastating countermeasures designed to confuse
and overwhelm the defense.

For biological or chemical weapons, says UCS, the warhead can be divided into
dozens or hundreds of small bomblets, or submunitions, that would be released
from the missile early in flight. These numerous targets would overwhelm the
planned NMD system. For nuclear weapons, which cannot be subdivided, a missile
can carry a large number of decoys to defeat the defense.

“Trying to hit a single, bare warhead with a high-speed interceptor—which
the current tests are assessing—is a difficult technical problem,”
said David Wright, physicist and senior staff scientist at UCS. “But
it is a completely different problem than trying to get the system to work
against countermeasures, which is what matters in the real world. Doing the
first doesn’t mean you can do the second…basing a deployment decision
on the current tests makes no sense—it’s the wrong criterion.”

UCS says the tests are insufficient to prove operational effectiveness. They
say three tests are “too few to determine reliability,” and that
the tests will not simulate realistic conditions of either the threat or the
system itself. The test will use surrogate rocket boosters and seekers.

UCS and other defense experts have long contended that the risks and costs
of deploying this limited national missile defense system far outweigh the

“For the very first stage of the system, we’re talking in the $24
billion dollar range,” says Doctor Lisbeth Gronlund, physicist and senior
staff scientist at UCS. “But that’s just the first stage.”
Gronlund says the problem is, “as you get closer to actually building
something, the costs always go up…I would be surprised if it could be built
for less than $50 billion.”

The Smart Rock, says Gronlund, “is supposed to destroy an incoming warhead
by smashing into it.” She said the U.S., “will launch a missile
to launch the so-called ‘kill-vehicle,’ which then guides itself
to smash into the warhead…it’s a heat-seeking device, so it needs to
be able to sense heat from the warhead, and, in fact, that is what failed
in the most recent test.”

Gronlund notes the test failed because, “the sensors that were supposed
to pick up the heat were not operating…for unknown reasons.” She says
the tests so far have not been representative of what would happen if the
U.S. were to actually come under attack by even a small number of missiles.

“The system is designed only to defend against a relatively small number
of missiles, not against, for example, Russia’s entire arsenal,”
said Gronlund. And, she says, “even proponents of the system want it
to be able to defend against states like North Korea, who might in the future
acquire long-range missiles—(although) they don’t currently have

Furthermore, says Gronlund, “any country with the where withall to build
a long-range missile—and perhaps the nuclear warhead to go on it—would
also be able to create countermeasures to defeat the missile defense system—which
are much easier technically.” She says the bottom line is that the U.S.
“is both assuming a threat that is very capable on the one hand of being
able to build long-range missiles, and yet, at the same time, not capable
of doing simple things to fool or defeat the U.S. missile defense.”

Gronlund isn’t alone in her assessment. Scientists and defense professionals
all over the world have warned that inadequate testing could lead to disaster.
UCS is joined by the Center for Defense Information and a host of international
experts in its assertion that deployment of such a costly system would almost
certainly undermine efforts toward deep nuclear weapons reductions. Russia—perhaps
not coincidentally—recently threatened not to ratify START II, and China
is likely to respond by expanding its arsenals as well.

Still, if the Clinton administration chooses deployment, the Smart Rock system
could be operational by as early as the year 2005. The decision will be based
on the results of the three intercept tests of the NMD, one of which has already
failed.          Z

Sandy Leon is News Producer for Global NewsBeat, KWMR Radio Marin County,