Ultimate umbrella

Star Wars: missile defense
Howzit work?
A tough task
When to hit that missile?


The first launch of a THAAD missile.

Image courtesy Lockeed Martin Missile and Space Division.


See the first launch of Lockeed's Theatre High Altitude Area Defense missile at a site in the New Mexico desert.

654K QuickTime movie courtesy Lockeed Martin Missile and Space Divison.


See an artist's depiction of how THAAD will intercept and destroy enemy missiles.

651K QuickTime movie.


A day time photo of a THAAD launch truck.

Image courtesy of Lockeed Martin Missile and Space Division.


Star wars -- the sequel, not the prequel! Missile defense lives!
The first launch of a THAAD missile.
18 JUNE 1999. Obi-Wan Kenobi and company have begun their crusade against the dark side in Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace. We trust, when five more money-making sequels are screened, that good will eventually triumph over evil.

Back here on Earth, Star Wars -- the missile defense, not the movie -- is also back. Uneasy about our present vulnerability to missile attack, Congress wants a decision about deployment of "national missile defense," a system capable of protecting all 50 states. But it's highly uncertain whether we can build a system that could vanquish enough incoming missiles.

(posted 8 MARCH 2000)

A former employee of the military contractor TRW has charged the company with faking test results in the $27-billion missile defense program. Nira Schwartz, who worked on Star Wars software in 1995 and 1996, says the company dodged the truth in repeated reports to the Pentagon. Here's how the New York Times explained it: "In test after test, the interceptors failed, she has alleged, but her superiors insisted that the technology performed adequately, refused her appeals to tell industrial partners and federal patrons of its shortcomings, and then fired her."

The issue concerned the ability to distinguish real warheads from decoy balloons, a critical capacity for missile defense. In papers filed in federal court, Schwartz charged that while TRW told the government that its system made the correct distinction 95 percent of the time, in reality it worked 5 percent to 15 percent of the time.

See "Ex-Employee Says Contractor Faked Results of Missile Tests," William Broad, The New York Times, March 7, 2000, p. A1.

Sixteen years ago, not long after the first of the Star Wars epics, President Ronald Reagan promoted a missile defense as protection against nuclear missiles from another evil empire -- the Soviet Union. Given the Reagan administration's timing and the preference for orbiting battle stations, the plan was inevitably dubbed "Star Wars."

The protagonists of Star Wars -- the movie -- fought with light sabers. In Star Wars -- the missile defense -- incoming missiles would supposedly be vaporized in another kind of light -- gigantic lasers. And these lasers would not be the product of Hollywood graphics, but rather high-tech radars, rockets, satellites, and ultra-fast computers.

Star Wars -- the missile defense -- was never built, despite the expenditure of $100 billion for research and development, a number that dwarfs even the LucasFilm rake-in for the ceaseless tide of Star Wars movies and merchandise.

Still relevant?
Right from the first, the Star Wars dream ran into problems. While Star Wars -- the movies -- are guaranteed moneymakers, the missile defense carries no guarantee whatsoever. And after $100 billion, whacking incoming missiles remains a daunting challenge. Only two of 14 tests succeeded -- most recently in 1991 -- and the tests were not held in realistic battle conditions.

Technical problems were not the only difficulty. Critics warned that missile defense would upset the familiar but terrifying situation of mutual assured destruction, which prevented the massively armed opponents of the Cold War from vaporizing each other. Critics predicted that enemies would respond by building more weapons and making them harder to locate. In sum, they argued, missile defense would accelerate the arms race and make the planet more dangerous.

Since the Soviet Union went belly-up in 1989, the political-military backdrop for the missile defense discussion has utterly changed. Russia's nuclear weapons are under uncertain stewardship. The nuclear club has expanded to eight, and missile technology is likewise spreading. Threats, in other words, are coming from different directions.

In this changed geopolitical landscape, Congress has revived the idea of missile defense. In May, a decisive majority in the House affirmed a Senate bill calling for deployment as soon as technologically feasible.

The best defense is a good defense
This time around, the goals and methods of the missile defense project have been trimmed to reflect today's situation. Star Wars 1.0, the Reagan version, was supposed to protect against a massive Soviet attack with thousands of warheads. Version 2.0, the one Congress has put on the table, is intended to protect against tiny attacks by a nation with a few nukes, or against accidental launches by Russia or China. Given the rocky history of test failures, that's a more realistic goal -- although still something that can't be done today. A second scaling-back concerned technology. Those futuristic lasers have been replaced by impact vehicles -- dubbed "smart rocks."

A day time photo of a THAAD launch truck.

But whacking a speeding missile with anything -- rock, laser or bow and arrow, for that matter -- remains a thorny problem. It's not just the 13 percent success rate for national missile defense that's at issue here. A more localized version, the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), has already failed six straight tests. The latest test, on May 25, was scrubbed when the target rocket tumbled out of control.

How would missile defense work? Even if a system worked in a test, could we rely on it to actually stop warheads? And would the defense increase safety -- or hazards?

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The Why Files Staff includes: Terry Devitt, editor; Darrell Schulte, webmaster; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Eric G.E. Zuelow, low man on the totem pole