by Jack Hitt
from RollingStone Website

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.



The backyard grill of America's missile defense shield is located toward the bow of her seagoing radar unit.


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 opaque.

Mostly, they loom. My entire conversation with the engineer occurs in this brittle space of carefully monitored availability, a tape recorder wielded by the press escort waggling in the air between us whenever one of us opens our mouth.

So when we get outside in the fresh air and the gaggle of officials moves off to the railing, I immediately start talking to the chef. Soon we are touching upon slow-cooked pork barbecue, and I feel like I have been temporarily beamed back to planet Earth. Of course, the chef can't cook real BBQ here on board - all he's got is this standard grill, the kind you might buy at Lowe's.

The primary fascination the backyard grill has for me is, simply, that it exists. Like most Americans, I have been stuck with this sense that missile defense - Ronald Reagan's dream of a security dome armed with an array of rockets and lasers and space-age interceptors that could shoot down any incoming missile launched by the Evil Empire - is still mostly theory, blue-sky notions doodled on a whiteboard somewhere, nothing more than a gnarly policy dispute on the Sunday-morning talk shows.


I had no real idea just how real, hardware real, the entire thing has gotten.

America's missile defense shield is, in a manner o speaking, up and running. One of the little-heralded achievements of the Bush administration was his order in 2002 that instructed the Defense Department to quit wasting so much time testing the shield to see if it will actually work and just deploy the damn thing already.


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,

launched minutes earlier from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii.
Photo: U.S. Navy



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 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.

This is my point. The missile defense shield has a backyard grill.




The SBX is only a small part of the missile defense shield, yet it alone is easily one of the most amazing things the Pentagon has ever built.


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.


With a little Industrial Light & Magic, the thing would seem more like a part of Star Wars (the movie) than Star Wars (the shield).

The design looks comically unseaworthy, a massive, top-heavy box bobbing perilously upon the ocean. Even as you stand on the dock, with the SBX towering like a skyscraper 282 feet above you, it's hard to shake the idea that you and a bunch of friends, armed with a case of beer, couldn't splash around in the water and tip the thing over.


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.

In its brief history, the SBX has been a source of ridicule. Although it was destined to work the Pacific rim of our defense, the entire unit was assembled in Texas, suggesting that some serious hometown earmarking went on somewhere. Unfortunately, given its massive size, the 50,000-ton vessel could not fit through the Panama Canal, so it had to be hoisted onto an even longer vessel for a slow and precarious journey around the tip of South America.


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 in general.

Ever since Reagan unveiled the idea of the shield on March 23rd, 1983, it has limped along with just enough funding to wheeze its way to the next presidency. Each commander in chief, believing he would make missile defense work for him, re-christened it so the bureaucracy would date its beginning to his administration.


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.

From the start, the idea of an all-encompassing shield to protect us from communist warheads seemed like one of those occasional Pentagon proposals - a bomb that doesn't destroy infrastructure, a weapon that turns the enemy into rutting homosexuals - that is born of a wayward faith in technology and generally withers away after becoming public.


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.

Given that everything these days from border patrol to Hurricane Katrina appears to have a Pentagon-related solution, it's hard to remember that there was a time, not so long ago, when it was hard to come up with a good, intimidating national-security issue. Gingrich believed that the Democrats' skepticism of missile defense would serve as the key issue to flip the White House in 1996. Missile defense failed that test - but it didn't matter.


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.

Today, thanks to Rumsfeld's devotion to the shield, missile defense is the single most-expensive weapons system in the American arsenal.


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.

Missile defense exists in a world of its own. It has a special budget process that exempts it from most congressional oversight, and it is pioneering a new acquisitions process that redefines the very nature of what constitutes a "threat." The system has a separate definition to denote what it means for a weapon to "work" and even what it means to "know" something to be true.


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.




"You'll need to empty all your pockets of any cell phones or the like," says the radar engineer, handing me a small box to put my stuff in.

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.

Inside the SBX's big white dome, the radar unit is the size of a small house, its face a giant circular billboard fronted by 45,056 radiation-receiver trumpets. When it is operating, the engineers tell me, the SBX could sit in Los Angeles Harbor and track a high-flying baseball over Shea Stadium in New York. The radar crew swears that if you were in here and the unit was accidentally turned on, it wouldn't really hurt you. But it's impossible not to be thankful that the key is in your pocket.


The image in my head is of Marvin the Martian getting fried by a cartoon laser gun into a hovering thread of carbon.

"We do our part," one engineer tells me, referring to the mission of missile defense.

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).

If the entire layered shield were up and running, and if an enemy were to fire a missile at America, here's how the system would hypothetically work:

In the first few minutes of the boost phase, a lot of technology would be brought to bear on the incoming missile. First, the rocket's signature plume would be spotted by our satellite systems - either at takeoff or, possibly, when it broke through cloud cover. The missile would then be tracked by land-based radar systems that are already in position in Alaska, California, Greenland and England. The information would be relayed to officials at command and control - probably in Colorado - who would confirm it as a missile launch and order a response.

The boost phase of an ICBM lasts roughly four minutes, a period when the missile is rumbling at its most sluggish. It is the optimal time to blow it up. Unfortunately, the designers of our missile defense shield have yet to figure out a system that is capable of reliably intercepting a boost-phase rocket. The idea that is furthest along - but still years away from working - is to mount an airborne laser on a Boeing 747.


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.

Should the missile get past the boost phase, it enters the midcourse phase. If the rocket is short to medium range, it could be shot down from sea by one of the Navy's three Aegis ships - a key part of the shield - which use high-powered radar to track and destroy incoming missiles. But if the rocket is a longer-range ICBM, it would spend twenty minutes or so in flight - giving us more time to hit it.


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 an interceptor missile won't have much of a chance of hitting its target if, as most experts assume, the enemy's nuclear warhead is surrounded by numerous decoys and chaff to baffle the radar. An interceptor can currently launch a single EKV, or Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, a device armed with its own infrared sensors designed to guide it on a collision course with the incoming missile.


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.

After the midcourse phase comes the terminal stage - the final thirty seconds or so of a missile's descent. Short-range to medium missiles, which move more slowly than ICBMs, would be taken out by the PAC-3, the latest version of the Patriot interceptor made famous in the Gulf War. Or they could be brought down by Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, a device that looks like a big truck carrying sewer pipes - except the pipes can tilt back off the rear bumper and shoot down a Scud from 125 miles off.

But if the enemy missile is a fast-moving ICBM, then the terminal-phase plan is just that: Everyone within its blast radius dies in a supernova of light that's 3,000 times brighter than the sun.


There is no technology exclusively dedicated to stopping a nuke in its terminal stage.




No metaphor is big enough to en- compass the vastness and scope of our missile defense shield. There is only description. The glossary of acronyms provided by the Pentagon to students of missile defense is a list of abbreviations, like SBX or MIRACL (Mid Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser). The glossary is typed on letter-size paper with single-spaced entries and common type size. It is 327 pages long.

The multiple technological "layers" of the shield are not its only overlapping elements: As an argument, missile defense is also layered with a host of Beltway anxieties, rivalries and fears. And no one describes the origin of this complexity better than Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, the director of the Missile Defense Agency.


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.

Obering ticks off a few of what he refers to as the "many sensitive areas" that have sparked opposition to missile defense.

  • First, the program has been carved out of the Defense Department and given its own budget authority, prompting territorial ire from the service's existing branches.


  • Second, he notes, there are the diplomats who fear it will upset the,

    • "delicate balance between the Soviet Union and the United States and lead us into World War III."


  • Third, it enrages the arms-control folks, who are trying to reduce the world's nuclear arsenal.


  • And fourth, there are the scientists.

    • "They said this is pie-in-the-sky, this will never ever work," Obering tells me. "There were serious scientists who garnered real support for that position."

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:

"You can't hit a bullet with a bullet."

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:

"The age of Star Wars," The Los Angeles Times declared, "had arrived."

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.

In recent years, the technological argument against missile defense has changed a bit in its details but remains principally the same - the opponents have only had to update their "bullet" metaphor.


It is now accepted, for instance, that any enemy firing an ICBM would camouflage the nuclear warhead with a bunch of decoys.

"It's more like stopping a shotgun blast with a shotgun blast," says John Pike, director of the defense-research firm Global Security and one of the shield's veteran critics.

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.

"We got so good at having this argument," Pike says, "that we often joked that at our next appearance together, we'd switch sides just to keep it interesting."

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.

"The launcher is a quarterback," Ellison told The Hill. "What's the best way to stop the quarterback from throwing the ball? You use your defensive linemen. If you can tackle him before he launches the ball, there's not a threat. That's what we call our boost-phase defense."

Midcourse interceptors "would take away the long bomb, the long pass." It all makes perfect football sense:

"I think defense wins championships. A great defense gives you the ability to win, the ability to protect. I obviously am conditioned that way."

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.

"The argument is that missile defense is not a 100 percent guarantee," Baxter says. "My response is, 'Are you feeling lucky, punk?'"




The geopolitics of missile defense are every bit as troublesome as the science.


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,

"Russia's large strategic offensive force could overwhelm the U.S. system's limited number of deployed interceptors."

Even in a direct, one-on-one engagement, the brochure concedes,

"U.S. interceptors in central Europe would not be capable of intercepting Russian ICBMs launched at the United States."

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 missiles: Venezuela.

While America focuses on hypothetical threats, other nations are taking real-world actions in direct response to missile defense. Last year, China demonstrated its offensive capacity by "painting" one of our satellites with a laser - the outer-space equivalent of sighting it with a rifle scope - and earlier this year, the Chinese military demonstrated its might by blowing one of its own satellites out of the sky.


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 to Europe.

This, to date, is the only real accomplishment of missile defense: The shield has effectively killed old arms-control treaties and ended deterrence. The arms race is back, only this time it's multilateral. China has officially chest-butted us in space, and Russia intends to aim missiles at Europe while massing troops at the borders of our allies. America, in return, gets the comfort of the shield.

Missile defense may not be good for international relations, but it's certainly good for business. When I board the SBX in Hawaii, I am cleared at the gangplank by a Native American from Alaska wearing the official uniform of Alutiiq Security.


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.

"This is what is called a government-owned, contractor-operated facility," the SBX's engineer tells me.

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.

"Interocean American Shipping," he says.

America's most sophisticated weapons system, it turns out, is being entrusted to a commercial ship operator based in New Jersey.

On the bridge, I meet the crew that navigates the SBX. The captain is a nice, barrel-chested man. Right away, it is explained that he is not the captain of the ship - that's "Navy talk" - but rather the "master of the vessel." The master is a merchant marine and has no military affiliation. Neither do the chief mate, third mate and second mate who wander in.


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.

Once SBX is fully completed, the Pentagon may assume responsibility for its operation. But multiple layers of contractors will likely remain throughout the system.


Over lunch in the dining room, I ask the engineer how many companies work on the SBX. He shakes his head.

"The number of different companies that play a role in this is too long to list," he says. "I mean, it goes from companies like Boeing and Bau Solutions to Raytheon, Harris, Northrop Grumman, all the way down to itty-bitty companies like Decibel Research, and then to legions of small companies and people."

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.






To get a feel for the layers of contracting involved in the shield, I visit the missile defense conference held each year in Huntsville, Alabama. More than 250 corporate booths stretch across three massive convention halls - 150,000 square feet of exhibition.


Navigating 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 room.

A few displays intend to be entertainment, like the photo booth where one can get a picture taken in a replica of Neil Armstrong's moon-walk spacesuit. Otherwise, the place is all business. Every hallway is crammed with tables; convention halls the size of sports arenas are overrun with displays by contractors that include portions of a jet wing, massive satellites and other impressively large chunks of space technology.


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.

I look at the list of talks being presented on the periphery of the hardware displays and informational booths.


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.

Discussing interplanetary defense against aliens might seem premature to pre-Rumsfeldian thinkers, but this is where the true genius of missile defense shows itself. In 2001, when Rumsfeld took over the Pentagon, he wanted to streamline what he viewed as cumbersome military spending to get past red tape and other bureaucratic obstacles.


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,

"produces a fixed configuration with which to judge a system's operational effectiveness and suitability or survivability against criteria based on military mission requirements."

Or as Philip Coyle, the former director of the testing office, tells me,

"It's like building a house without a floor plan. You can do it, but you get a real expensive house, and your spouse won't be happy."

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

"The probability that there is an alien who could visit Earth," Travis says, "ended up being 0.0000000043 percent at the worst and 0.19 percent in the most perfect case."


"If aliens attack," he adds, "we'd probably use a Directed Energy Weapon against them - but there are problems."


"Our weapons could probably hit them, but I don't think they would do any damage," Travis laments. "So my prediction is that we have to build new weapons and come up with new technology. That's really the reality."

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.




Before Rumsfeld came along, missile defense had been stuck for years in research and development.


But in 2002, when Bush issued a presidential order to shift from research to deployment, the rules changed overnight.

"When Bush announced plans to deploy hardware, the programs were rushed out of R&D, ready or not," says Joseph Cirincione, a national-security expert at the Center for American Progress. "They devoted themselves to deployments instead of making it work."

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:

"Cut already."

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.

"Capability means the opposite of what you think it means here," says Coyle, the Pentagon's former director of testing. "If someone said, 'I'm going to take a capability-based approach to deciding something,' you would think it would mean more capability rather than less. In fact, in many instances it means buying military equipment with little or no capability, not more. Capability means it's better than nothing.

" Better than nothing. That, in essence, is the new, capability-based approach to missile defense. And it's not just the critics harping. As Gen. Obering himself explained it in 2005, "We have a better-than-zero chance of successfully intercepting, I believe, an inbound warhead."

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.

"A lot of the answers are found in the software," he says. "And that's great because you can test it in the lab and you never have to fly things. The acid test obviously is to do it with a real target with a real rocket and a real radar. But you can do an awful lot of it in the lab, and we rely heavily on that."

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 and California.

Of course, the "deploy now, test later" approach has its drawbacks. During a 2005 run, the interceptor couldn't get out of the silo because the retraction arm - which hadn't been tested properly in real-world conditions - didn't fully retract, causing the entire system to shut down. In the old knowledge-based world, that probably would have been worked out before deployment. But in the capability-based world, each interceptor had to be removed, a new retractor system designed and installed, and the interceptors put back into the silos.

The Aegis system is arguably the most successful system in the system of systems, testing-wise. We currently have three Aegis cruisers at sea in the Pacific, and they routinely hit their targets in tests: In April, the Aegis scored a twofer, simultaneously knocking down both a cruise and a ballistic missile.


But even those tests aren't realistic.

"Those engagements are quite scripted," says Coyle. "All the pieces are in the right places so the engagement can occur."

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 Missile Defense Agency doesn't deny that it rigs its tests - it merely insists that such "scripting" is good science: Each test focuses on one aspect of a technology, such as whether the radar is tracking or the interceptor is launching.

"We wanted to take it one step at a time," Gen. Obering tells me.

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.

The Missile Defense Agency plans twenty to thirty more tests of its ground-based system before it can be ready for battle-simulated testing. But from 2002 to 2006, the agency conducted only three successful tests.

"At that rate of success," says Coyle, "it could take over forty years before the system might be ready to be tested under realistic operational conditions."

So far this year, there has been only one test - which was scrapped when the target missile misfired.

If the old question was whether or not the technology worked - and it still has not been satisfactorily answered - there now appears to be a new question: Even if the technology is found to work, given the current schedule, will missile defense be fully operational anytime in the next half-century?


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.

"To better ensure the success of future development efforts," they wrote, "GAO recommends that MDA implement a knowledge-based acquisition strategy for future missile defense efforts."

The Defense Department, the report concluded with sardonic brevity, "did not agree to take any of the actions we recommended."




Government auditors and scientists aren't the only ones anxiously hoping for more realistic testing of missile defense.


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.

"I want to see it happen," a frustrated Rumsfeld declared last year when he visited the new interceptor missiles now in the ground at Fort Greely, Alaska. "A full end-to-end process where we actually put all the pieces together - that just hasn't happened."

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.

In a van with an entourage of escorts, we drive past the silos where our ground-based missile defense resides in climate-controlled underground security. The entire field is surrounded by fences, high-tech motion detectors and infrared cameras, which sometimes are triggered by moose. Inside the silo compound, sandbags are arranged at various angles so that soldiers can take cover and return fire in the event of a land invasion.


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.

"There have been no tests," he says.

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.

"Right now, we don't have that on the books," says Gen. Obering.

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.

"Rain," says Coyle, reminiscing about the good-old knowledge-based days. "That's a battle condition that would typically have been tested for."

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.

"The Manhattan Project cost about $22-billion in today's dollars - and we got a bomb," says Cirincione of the Center for American Progress.


"So far, missile defense has cost more than $100-billion, but there is no set of brilliant people running it. We didn't get the smartest people we know, put them in a desert and say, 'Give us a bomb.' Instead we say, 'Let's find the most advanced defense contractors and give them billions and ask them to build something. There is not a Robert Oppenheimer or Edward Teller or Hans Bethe associated with this. It's just a bunch of contractors and people who administer contracts."

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,

"unlikely to be practical when all factors are considered, no matter where or how interceptors are based."

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."

Their conclusion:

"With the technology we judge could become available within the next fifteen years, defending against a single ICBM would require a thousand or more interceptors."

Currently, we have twenty-two.

Other reports suggest that basic operational issues have yet to be addressed. A group of retired Navy and Coast Guard officers examined the SBX last year and concluded that the vessel lacks a "well-trained, experienced crew."


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.

An engineer on the SBX plays down the significance of the report, telling me that the radar unit,

"is not a Navy combatant and is not built to those standards. It is built to commercial standards, for better or worse, and those are just different from what the Navy does. They intend their hulls to get shot at, and we are really hoping that doesn't happen to us."

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,

"large fishing trawler which would have the capability to inflict physical damage in an intentional collision."

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."




  • How did we get here?

  • 'Here' being a weapons-procurement policy that is governed by special budget procedures, allowing money to be moved from one program to another without outside oversight?

  • That is exempt from traditional "fly before you buy" rules?

  • That tolerates huge overruns - $478-million, or six percent of the total budget in fiscal 2006?

  • That works in carefully controlled "capability-based" tests but malfunctions under "knowledge-based" conditions like rain?

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.

The problem began when the NIE arrived. The report concluded that there weren't any immediate threats:

"The Intelligence Community judges that in the next fifteen years, no country other than the major declared nuclear powers will develop a ballistic missile that could threaten the contiguous forty-eight states or Canada."

Republicans immediately attacked this report.

"Extraordinarily sloppy work," declared Sen. John Kyl of Arizona.

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.

Enraged, Congress mandated yet another commission. This time, the chairman was none other than Donald Rumsfeld. Working alongside Paul Wolfowitz, the future secretary of defense finally came up with the result that Republicans were looking for. The Rumsfeld Commission established a new standard of threat, asserting that any country with Scud technology would be able to easily convert to ICBM capability. Most important, they determined that the earlier intelligence efforts were flawed because they looked only at "likely" threats instead of "possible" threats - such as North Korea and Iran and Venezuela.

This was a key conceptual shift, the difference between relying upon known facts to empirically project a likely scenario and relying upon the human imagination to conjure every possible danger. If the shift seems familiar, that's because it is the same one that occurred throughout the government after September 11th.


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.

After Bush's inauguration, when Rumsfeld was placed in charge of the Pentagon, he immediately began directing big budget increases toward missile defense. One day, in the Senate, some Democrats started to complain that too much money was being spent on missile defense and not enough to combat the kinds of nontraditional attacks preferred by terrorists. Joe Biden threatened to cut the missile defense budget unless Rumsfeld shifted some money toward preparing for terrorist attacks. Rumsfeld threw a fit and threatened to have President Bush veto any such bill.


The day this angry standoff took place was September 10th, 2001.

Since then, the budget for missile defense has ballooned beyond all expectations. Democrats hope to shave the funding here and there, mostly in an attempt to drive the program away from premature deployment and back toward testing. But the shield itself - its backyard grill, its permanence as a part of America's national security - is no longer a matter for debate.


Rumsfeld won: We have poured concrete and placed interceptors in the ground.

Rumsfeld also won the wider debate - the one over how the shield would be built. With no Oppenheimer-like rocket scientist to crack the whip on contractors and accelerate testing toward something that might work sooner rather than later, the entire system is being developed by layers of midlevel managers on a slow-train schedule that has no completion date. It is being developed not just to defend us against knowable threats but against any imaginable threat.


And that defense will be provided not by a system that actually works but by one that, at least in theory, is capable of working.

The old worldview of deterrence relied upon the isometric force of human nature: Both sides were safe if both were equally in danger. We have overthrown that strategy for one that depends entirely upon American superiority. But not a superiority based on diplomatic cunning, past generosity or speaking softly; rather, a "bring 'em on" superiority whose success in the clutch depends on many moving parts - multiple Pentagon bureaucracies coordinating scores of private contractors, who in turn must come together seamlessly to boot up layers of untested technologies, all of which must work perfectly the first time.

On board the SBX, I stand on the helipad.


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.

From here I can peer along the starboard side of the vessel, where the crew has bolted a basketball hoop on a wide deck down below. The crew comes out here sometimes and plays a half-court game in the space between the hoop and the starboard-side railing.


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.

"That basketball," the engineer says, "it fell and it fell and it fell, and it fell some more, and it kept on falling, and it fell a little bit more, and it finally hit the water. It's a long way down."