by Jack Hitt
recovered through WayBackMachine Website
The Shield Star Wars began as a Reagan-era fantasy. Under Bush, it is now the most expensive weapons system in the history of man. It has never been successfully tested. It will never be finished.
And it is completely unnecessary.
It's tucked under an overhang, right next to the bright-orange, James Bond-sleek lifeboats. The chef, a guy in a crisp white apron, is starting the coals. The Pentagon has cleared me to see the shield, so I've flown to Hawaii to tour the SBX radar, which is docked in Pearl Harbor for repairs.
So far, though, the answers I've been
getting are extremely guarded énot hostile or suspicious in any way,
just very safe and authorized. The high-ranking engineer who is
giving me the tour cannot be identified in any way, and all of his
comments are off the record. Also in our entourage are three or four
bureaucrats whose names I never learn and whose purposes remain
I had no real idea just how real,
hardware real, the entire thing has gotten.
The SBX is the part of the system that, according to its designers, will pinpoint an incoming ICBM's trajectory and direct into its flight path high-speed interceptor missiles, which also exist and are now on standby in silos in Alaska and California.
A Standard Missile is launched from the USS Lake Erie in the latest Missile Defense Agency,
U.S. Navy test of its sea-based ballistic missile defense program.
The SM-3 intercepted a short range ballistic missile target,
earlier from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands,
Last summer, when the North Koreans fired some missiles, America turned the shield on. The system is a go. The interceptor silos in Alaska are manned by a permanent National Guard unit. Type "missile defense" into hotjobs.yahoo.com to apply for one of the 187 jobs currently open. The SBX has two full crews that roll into work every few weeks on staggered rotations.
They've moved into their quarters and
put their socks in the bureau drawers. They have a well-equipped
gym, and word just got out that a flat-screen TV is on the way.
They're at home on board, comfortable here.
Pictures don't begin to capture its Seussian unlikeliness. A giant white radar dome the size of a hot-air balloon sits upon a flat rectangular deck, which itself is perched upon six elephantine pylons. At rest upon the surface of the sea, the SBX stands like a mechanical creature from the deep recesses of George Lucas' mind, ready to swat aside pesky fighter pilots in their buzzing jets.
a little Industrial Light & Magic, the thing would seem more like a
part of Star Wars (the movie) than Star Wars (the shield).
In reality, it is designed to be one of
the world's most seaworthy vessels. It started off life - built,
curiously enough, by the Russians - as an oil-drilling platform in
the North Sea, one that could move around in high winds and choppy
waters in search of crude. When this vessel "ballasts down"
- sinking its submarine-size pontoons beneath the shifting surface of
the sea - massive waves crash through its pylons as harmlessly as
currents eddying around the creosote-coated pilings of a dock.
Then, when the SBX finally arrived in
Hawaii, constant breakdowns forced it to spend the past twenty
months in and out of the docks of Pearl Harbor, getting fixed up.
But to have made it this far - up and running, grill out back - is
a stunning achievement for the SBX specifically and missile defense
Under Reagan, it was known as the
Strategic Defense Initiative. Under Clinton, it was changed to the
Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. And in the first year of
George W. Bush, it became the Missile Defense Agency.
Early reviews of missile defense, like those of Reagan's old movies, were mocking: shooting the moon on defense, as Time put it in a 1984 headline. By the time communism fell five years later, missile defense had not even moved beyond the drawing board. The idea seemed quaint, a relic of detente and an earlier time, something on the order of the office of the Federal Tea-Taster, a bureaucracy that continued getting funding long after it seemed fitting.
Then, in 1994, Star Wars found a new
champion in Newt Gingrich, who enshrined the need to "reinvigorate a
national missile defense" in the only national-security-related
pledge in his Contract With America.
The shield had been reborn as a hot-blooded, Republican-versus-Democrat wedge issue - one almost on par with abortion, gun ownership or gay people in love.
Click above image to see presentation
The shield got another break in 1998 when Kim Jong-il, the crazed leader of North Korea, fired off a Taepodong-1 missile. The launch was a technical fiasco, but it was a shot in the arm for missile defense.
That March, Clinton signed the National Missile Defense Act, making deployment of the shield a central policy of the U.S. government.
Then, after Osama bin Laden blew a hole
in the Pentagon in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld plowed even more money into
missile defense - even though the system was designed to counter
large, trackable strikes by an enemy nation rather than small,
asymmetrical threats from isolated terrorists. Indeed, the shield's
hasty progress from drawing board to hardware resembles nothing so
much as the Iraq War: engineered by neoconservatives, founded on
blurry threat assessments, approved over the complaints of enfeebled
Democrats, its mission periodically adjusted to accommodate the
prevailing political winds.
The Bush administration has nearly tripled Clinton's average missile
defense budget, to $11-billion a year - a sum almost four times
larger than the U.S. government's total spending on energy research.
By 2013, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, missile defense
will be costing us nearly $19-billion a year - roughly half the
current budget for the entire Department of Homeland Security.
The shield operates beyond the world of empirical testing, and outside the four service branches of the U.S. military. In many ways, it is a new mini-me Defense Department. It is America's Pyramid of Gaza, our Colossus of Rhodes, our Great Wall - an infinitely advancing "system of systems" that, by the Pentagon's own description, can never be completed. It both works (in part or in theory) and does not work (as a whole or in practice).
There is not, and never will be, a finished product. In time, the shield will shroud America and her allies, and a perpetual commitment to its everlasting need for further refinements and add-ons will be required to keep it functioning.
Long after Iraq has taken its place next
to Vietnam as a college seminar on U.S. quagmires, the missile
defense shield will still be evolving into what it is: the true
legacy of America's sage of postmodern military existentialism, Donald Rumsfeld.
Visiting the SBX's radar unit - the most powerful defensive radar in the world - requires a whole new set of engineers, who lead me on a separate subtour.
After surrendering our personal gear, we
turn to a panel behind us that holds twenty-four big brasslike keys.
For each of us who plans to enter the radar room, a single key is
turned and withdrawn from a large lock. We put the key in our
pockets. As long as even one of these keys is missing, the radar
will not activate and zap us with a potentially lethal blast of
radiation. In the Bruce Willis version of this story, this small
room will be crucial in the "final scene of mayhem.
The image in my head is of Marvin the Martian getting fried by a cartoon laser gun into a hovering thread of carbon.
And that part, while crucial, is only one small element of the entire shield. That's not to belittle the otherwise gargantuan SBX, but only to indicate just how massive and complex the full system of missile defense is. Actually, the preferred term of art among missile defense savants is "layered."
By that, officials mean that there are
many, many moving parts to the shield that provide different
technological responses depending on the range of the ballistic
missile that is headed our way - short, medium, long, intermediate
or intercontinental. Such choices, in turn, depend upon which phase
of the missile's parabolic flight path you hope to intercept it in - at the beginning (boost phase), in the middle (midcourse) or as
it descends, hurtling into its target (terminal phase).
The plane would attempt to focus a laser
beam on the climbing rocket until its metal housing heated up and
caved in. Or there's the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, also still in
the idea phase, which would swoop down from space, or be fired from
land, and crash into a boost-phase missile.
This is where the crew on board the SBX
really goes to work. Using the unit's massive radar, the SBX would
relay extremely precise information about the rocket's location back
to central command. A course would get plotted and one of the U.S.
interceptor missiles currently on standby in the ground in Alaska
and California would fly toward the target.
But with decoys and chaff, engineers now
envision the interceptor launching MKVs, or Multiple Kill Vehicles.
After receiving coordinates from the SBX, the onboard computers of
this hypothetical interceptor would track the decoys, discriminating
between the fakes and the real thing, and then launch kill devices
on independent trajectories to destroy them all.
There is no technology exclusively
dedicated to stopping a nuke in its terminal stage.
Known to his friends as "Trey," Obering
is quick to call you by your first name, lively in conversation and
not given to cheesy TV spin. A good soldier, he is eager to plow
right into the reality.
At its core, the fight over missile defense is a struggle between American optimism and American skepticism. From the start, the main opposition focused on a set of complex technological critiques that were summed up with a devastatingly simple analogy:
In 1991, during the Gulf War, the Patriot missile was widely perceived to have done just that, knocking down Saddam's Scuds with ferocious effectiveness. The initial reports were glowing:
But it was later revealed that the good
news was spin: Most of the time, the Patriot missed its mark. And in
2003, at the start of the Iraq War, Patriots killed two British
soldiers and an American pilot, Lt. Nathan White. It turns out that
even the Patriot - the only part of missile defense that has
actually been battle-tested - suffers from basic problems,
sometimes mistaking our own planes for enemy missiles.
It is now accepted, for instance, that any enemy firing an ICBM would camouflage the nuclear warhead with a bunch of decoys.
By this point, the folks on either side of the missile defense debate have been at it for so many years that they are like an old married couple who have heard each other's stories a million times.
Pike, for instance, has routinely squared off against Keith Payne of the National Institute for Public Policy.
The cheerleaders, at least, have added a few colorful players to the bench. Riki Ellison, the former linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, now heads the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
He likes to use football metaphors to explain missile defense, comparing an enemy ICBM to the captain of the offense.
Midcourse interceptors "would take away the long bomb, the long pass." It all makes perfect football sense:
The other figure who has been pushed into the limelight by supporters of missile defense is Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, the former guitarist for the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. He's sort of missile defense's Bono. In 2005, Baxter got Wall Street Journal front-page treatment, where he explained that his work in the music studio coupled with his hobbyist obsession reading Aviation Week led him to write a paper that persuaded the Pentagon to turn its sea-based offensive technologies into the Aegis defense system we have today. Baxter believes the era of deterrence is over.
Sure, missile defense might not be fully operational right now - but that ambiguity by itself could be a strength.
Even the Missile Defense Agency concedes that the shield - originally envisioned as a defense against a rival superpower - is no longer of any use against China or Russia. A colorful brochure produced by the agency to make the case for expansion of the shield into Europe confesses that,
Even in a direct, one-on-one engagement, the brochure concedes,
Having abandoned its superpower mission, the shield has morphed under Donald Rumsfeld into an all-purpose defense for the Age of Terrorism. For the last few years, the Bush administration has promoted the shield as protection against rogue states like North Korea and Iran. But the State Department recently reached a diplomatic agreement with North Korea that would eliminate its nuclear weapons program, and Iran is years away from developing nuclear capabilities.
So whose warheads will the shield protect us from?
In August, during a lecture at a missile defense
convention, one proponent of the system suggested the possibility of
a new ballistic threat from a country that currently possesses no
The shield has also soured America's
relations with Russia, which views our plans to install silos for
interceptors in central Europe as the equivalent of the Cuban
missile crisis. In response, Vladimir Putin has threatened to aim a
new generation of missiles directly at the heart of Europe, and in
July he withdrew from a treaty crafted by President George H.W. Bush
that limits the number of troops and tanks Russia can position close
Because SBX will ultimately be stationed in Alaska, the contract for its security went to a local Native American tribe. As with its complex technology and multiple military rivalries, the missile defense system is also "layered" in another way - as a series of receding and lucrative private contracts.
Boeing is the prime contractor for the SBX, but Raytheon is in charge of operating the radar, and that is just the beginning.
He and I are eating lunch in the dining room, which is contracted to yet another private company. From a blackboard filled with yummy offerings, I order a first course of coconut curried chicken and rice soup, followed by a tasty Asian-style pork chop. This isn't your daddy's Navy, because this is not the United States Navy. There is not a single U. S. Navy officer to be found on board the SBX.
In fact, there is not a single uniformed member of the U.S. military stationed here. Over soup, I ask the engineer who the crew works for.
America's most sophisticated weapons system, it turns out, is
being entrusted to a commercial ship operator based in New Jersey.
One is a regular-looking guy in jeans and a T-shirt, with a goatee and the kind of bad-boy laugh one hears in a sports bar; another is a young punkish woman in a Grateful Dead-style T-shirt, a floridly colored tattoo of birds and plants running up one arm from wrist to elbow; a third is an older guy in a jumpsuit unzipped to reveal the upholstery of his chest hair.
Out on the deck, just under the huge
white radar dome, I meet a crew member who is making some of the
repairs to the SBX. Judging from the bandanna pulling back his long
sandy hair, his big loop earrings and the emblem on the T-shirt
stretched across his impressive gut, I suspect he rode his Harley to
the missile defense shield this morning.
Over lunch in the dining room, I ask the engineer how many companies work on the SBX. He shakes his head.
And that's just the SBX.
Multiply this single system by all the components in the vast "system of systems" that comprise our missile defense shield, and you begin to get an idea of how extensive the layering is. The Airborne Laser - still in preliminary testing - has forty prime and subcontractors. The contracts are literally layered across the country. Defense contractors make no secret of this aspect of their work: It is widely accepted as a form of political protection.
On Boeing's Web site, the company provides a map of the companies on "Team ABL" in fifteen states, from Heraeus (large optics) in Georgia to Brashear LP (turret assembly) in Pennsylvania to CSA Engineering (jitter reduction) in California to AOA (wavefront sensor) and Xinetics (deformable mirrors) in Massachusetts.
VI. THEY CAME FROM OUTER SPACE
the sea of contractors requires a map identifying numerous
presentations and lectures, each color-coded with a piece of red,
blue or yellow tape on the floor directing the visitor to the proper
The corporate layering of missile
defense is on full display, and the cover story in a recent issue of
National Defense magazine, the house organ of the missile defense
industry, captures the upbeat mood: gold rush: companies worldwide
battle for u.s. defense dollars.
The title of one catches
my eye: interplanetary defense. It's listed right after
UFO: Real or
Myth? I follow the color-coded tape on the floor and take my place
in the audience, waiting for the talk to start.
So he turned to a new way of thinking about weapons systems - one that meant no longer viewing missile defense as a product to be finished but rather as something that is routinely and infinitely updated, like a computer's operating software. The name for this concept is "spiral development." This means that you build a weapons system not with a fixed design and completion date in mind, but with a more flexible idea of what you are shooting for, one that is subject to endless change and revision.
Rumsfeld and missile defense proponents defend this change by arguing that it creates new efficiencies. But it also means, according to the Defense Department's own Office of Operational Testing and Evaluation, that it is impossible to assess the progress of missile defense because spiral development no longer,
Or as Philip Coyle, the former director of the testing office, tells me,
At the interplanetary defense seminar, an astronomer named Doc Travis takes the podium and introduces himself as a "high-tech redneck" who has worked for the Defense Department and NASA. To make his case, he explains that one can use the Drake Equation to determine the odds of space aliens coming to our planet and encountering our missile defense shield.
In case you want to run your own calculations, here is the formula: N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L
And that's the true beauty of spiral development.
Theoretically, planning for an alien
invasion is as much on the drawing board as the next upgrade to the SBX.
But in 2002, when Bush issued a presidential order to shift from research to deployment, the rules changed overnight.
To justify the deployment of untested technologies, officials at the Missile Defense Agency changed the fundamental epistemology of weapons procurement.
In bureaucratic-speak, they ceased following a "knowledge-based" system and relied instead upon what they called a "capability-based" standard. In simple terms, it's the difference between knowing that something works because you've tested it, and believing that something works because all the parts, when put together, should be capable of working.
It's the difference between test-driving a car before mass-producing it, and building one from a schematic but deciding not to turn the key for the first time until there's an emergency.
It's the difference between the old carpenter's advice of "measure twice, cut once," and the new, Rumsfeldian directive:
In the old knowledge-based days, procurement was based more or less on common sense: Contractors developed a weapons system that showed promise, gradually trying it out in more and more realistic situations. Once progress warranted it, the Pentagon took over and performed "realistic operational testing" under conditions that simulated battle - rain, heat, sandstorms.
But now, under Rumsfeld's "capability-based" standard, entire weapons systems can be built without bothering to see if they will work in the real world.
During my tour of the SBX, when I ask the engineer about the radar's ability to discriminate a warhead from countermeasures, he practically beams.
This kind of thinking does wonders for the speed with which you can deploy weapons. Take the shield's interceptor missiles. In the old way of building things, a few missiles would have been built and tested repeatedly until it was clear they could reliably launch, sync up with central command, interact with radar, intercept a test missile that shrouded itself in decoys, make the necessary discriminations and blow the proper target from the sky.
But under the new way of building
things, all you have to do is have the whole thing worked out on
paper, in simulated computer run-throughs and a few limited
real-world tests. That's why fields of interceptor missiles are
already up and, in a capability-based way, running in both Alaska
But even those tests aren't realistic.
The interceptors onboard the Aegis are
currently half as fast as they need to be, so during the tests, the
ships are located within a range that makes it possible for their
missiles to reach their target.
The trouble is, missile defense is not like building a new jet, where the foundational technology - flying an aircraft - is well-known. Instead, much of missile defense depends on breakthrough technologies that require creative invention, not merely the gradual progress of making known hardware better. That means failures in tests are much more likely - and too much failure might mean cuts in the budget.
So instead of conducting realistic
tests, contractors have an incentive to devise tightly scripted,
narrowly defined, almost-certain-to-succeed tests. In the
procurement business, it's called "kicking the can down the road"
- slowly working your way to a goal without ever really getting there.
Instead of building a missile defense shield, what gets constructed
is a full-employment policy for defense contractors.
So far this year, there has been only
one test - which was scrapped when the target missile misfired.
In a report last year by the straight-shooting Government Accountability Office, the authors offered some wide-ranging suggestions before boiling their advice down to one central idea - a return to classical epistemology.
The Defense Department, the report
concluded with sardonic brevity, "did not agree to take any of the
actions we recommended."
There has yet to be an unscripted, "end-to-end" test in which all the elements of the ground-based missiles in California and Alaska are run to see if the system can really shoot down an ICBM that is launched without warning and with countermeasures designed to fool an interceptor.
The shield's primary military base is outside the little village of Delta Junction, Alaska - a town that nearly returned to frontier wilderness before missile defense moved in.
On a morning when the weatherman talks about minus-something temperatures, I grab a cup of coffee at the Jitter Junction before heading out to the base for breakfast at the Ballistic Bistro.
The crew that operates the field's
nineteen silos is, like the crew on the SBX, not part of the
Pentagon's four traditional services. Instead, government personnel
are drawn from National Guard units as far away as Florida - all of
whom are outnumbered by the private contractors buzzing about the
site to care for all the high technology.
As the van slowly crunches its way around the perimeter, I ask an officer what it was like to see one of these interceptors fly during a test.
In fact, the only physical tests of such interceptors have been done out of decidedly warmer fields in the South Pacific and at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara, California, where there's no need to launch the missiles over populated areas. In fact, the missiles at Fort Greely are not even scheduled for testing.
Last year, three weeks of heavy rain did what no invading army could pull off: It penetrated Fort Greely's defenses and took out a quarter of the missiles. The silos and the electronics vaults adjacent to them were flooded - one silo was filled with sixty-three feet of water. Boeing blames the military, the military blames Boeing.
According to the Missile Defense Agency, it is not cost-effective to repair the damage. Moreover, it is now considered too dangerous to work near missiles in the undamaged silos.
The latest budget has a line in it to start from scratch: The government plans to build a completely new field of twenty missiles.
The cost of rebuilding the system every time there's a malfunction appears to have pushed missile defense into a new status: The most costly procurement program with the least return in American history.
In fact, leading scientists are skeptical if not outright critical of missile defense. In 2003, the American Physical Society convened a study group of top scientists from MIT, Cornell, Stanford, Sandia Labs and Los Alamos to examine the physical reality of shooting down an ICBM in the boost phase, those first few minutes when a rocket is most vulnerable to attack.
The scientists called into question the practical physics of all boost-phase technology. They noted that the interceptors we're building are not fast enough to "reach the ICBMs in time from international waters or neighboring countries."
They also observed that if the enemy merely shifts from liquid to solid fuels, "which have shorter burn times," it would render any boost-phase interception,
The Airborne Laser, if it is ever built,
"would be ineffective against solid-propellant ICBMs." And for the
Aegis to work, it would have to be "positioned within a few tens of
kilometers of the launch location of the attacking missile."
Currently, we have twenty-two.
What's more, it has three separate
leaders who could find themselves at odds during an attack: the
master of the vessel responsible for the ship, an operations manager
dedicated to the military mission and a security officer assigned to
protect the key national asset.
In fact, the Navy officers brought up that very issue as well, noting the embarrassing issue of security. The SBX is protected by sixteen guards toting .50-caliber machine guns - not much defense against anything, even a,
Another report by the Coast Guard foresees even greater catastrophes. The report frets openly about the SBX's permanent mooring area in Adak, Alaska, where arctic swells exceed "thirty feet for many days" and violent tempests have earned the area a reputation among natives as the "birthplace of the winds."
Buffeted by such conditions, the SBX might not be able to hold her position or make contact with her re-supply vessel, a situation that "presents an imminent safety threat to the platform, her crew and the pristine environment of the Aleutian Islands."
Gen. Obering responded in writing, saying that he had every reason to believe that the SBX can hold its own in one of the world's stormiest seas. The reason for his confidence?
The stability and performance of the SBX, he said, was
shown to be excellent in various "scale-model tank tests."
To understand what happened, it is necessary to dial back the clock to 1994, when Newt Gingrich and the new Republican majority took over Congress.
To make the case that America faced new threats in
the post-Cold War world - and thus needed to maintain a big defense
budget - Congress ordered America's intelligence agencies to assess
the new dangers. The resulting National Intelligence Estimate was
issued in 1995.
Republicans immediately attacked this report.
Missile boosters mandated that a congressional commission be assembled to study this obviously flawed assessment. To ensure they got the answer they wanted, they stacked the commission with Republicans and put Robert Gates, a former CIA director, in charge.
Yet Gates and his team concluded that not only was the NIE correct
but that things were even less dire than stated.
All threats, big and small, were now on
the table, and all were taken seriously. In foreign policy, this
worldview became known as the War on Terror. In the realm of
national defense, this idea became the missile defense shield. The
vocabulary used to make the case for missile defense served, in
essence, as an intellectual dry run for the arguments made about the
threat level of Iraq in 2003.
The day this angry standoff took
place was September 10th, 2001.
Rumsfeld won: We have poured concrete
and placed interceptors in the ground.
And that defense will be provided not by a system that
actually works but by one that, at least in theory, is capable of
I can do this because, two years after its completion, this helipad has still not been cleared for routine landings of military helicopters. So the crew has adapted it to other purposes. At the edges of the helipad are positioned a couple of bright-yellow Adirondack chairs. Scattered about are cigarette butts.
For now, the helipad of our missile
defense shield is a billion-dollar smoking lounge.
It's a pretty challenging game, the engineer tells me, because every once in a while the players are jolted back into realizing where they are. During one game, thanks to an errant pass, the ball sailed unexpectedly over the side.
The game stopped and everyone ran to the railing, skyscraper height above the surface of the sea.