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Star Wars Now

Missile defense is on its way to becoming a reality.

7:10 PM, May 7, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
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HIGH ABOVE THE EARTH, the Aries missile streaked toward its target, creasing the thermosphere at two miles a second. Launched at 8:12 a.m. Hawaiian Standard Time, the 30-foot long solid-fuel rocket had weighed in at more than six tons and had generated 200 kilonewtons of thrust. But now, high overhead, the missile had separated from its booster, and it screamed along the edge of space.

It was doomed from the start. Far below, rolling gently in the sea off the Kauai coast, the USS Lake Erie waited. The ship--a Ticonderoga class cruiser--is 567 feet of gray lethality: Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles, MK 46 sub-killer torpedoes, and a brace of six-barreled Vulcan Gatling guns (rate of fire: a sweet 6,000 rounds per minute). The Lake Erie is outfitted with the Aegis ballistic missile defense system. The sailors detected the missile, and went to work.

"The firing team had no clue when the [Aries target] missile would be launched," said Fire Controlman 3rd Class Jacob Todd on board Lake Erie. The ship's crew tracked the missile's course, and quickly generated a fire-control solution. At 8:16 a.m., an SM-3 missile was launched from the Lake Erie's deck. Trailing a cone of fire, the SM-3 rose into the sulfurous yellow sky.

Six minutes elapsed. Then, a hundred miles up and 375 miles northwest of Kauai, the Lake Erie's missile ripped into the incoming Aries. The explosion was brilliant and furious and then instantly gone, and the only things remaining of the two missiles were slivers of hot metal drifting back toward earth.

This test occurred last November, and was the sixth successful missile interception out of seven attempts. Of course, American attention is currently focused on Iran, which is both building a nuclear warhead and lying about it at the same furious clip, and which has successfully tested its medium-range Shahab 3 missile. North Korea, which has fired a Taepo Dong 1 missile over Japan, is just as dangerous.

Less attention is being paid to the antidote: the Pentagon's success in anti-missile tests, and its current and on-going deployment of systems that will knock out enemy missiles. "A robust, fully operational missile defense system is on its way to becoming a reality," Air Force Lt. General Henry A. Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said last month. Star Wars is here, now.

Remember the scoffing when Ronald Reagan first proposed a ballistic missile defense? A typical example: in 1985 an aide to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, the Wisconsin Democrat, announced, "Star Wars research is an imprudent use of taxpayers' dollars. By continuing it, we're essentially throwing money into a bottomless pit." The skepticism continues. In 2004, Eugene Habiger, who headed the U.S. Strategic Command in the mid-1990s, said, "A system is being deployed that doesn't have any credible capability." And the Union of Concerned Scientists--who else?--recently issued a tract claiming that there is "no basis for believing the system will have any capability to defend against real attack."

This thinking is reminiscent of U.S. Patent Office Commissioner Charles Duell's 1899 recommendation that the Patent Office be closed because, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Perhaps Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld best counters this type of Luddism: "Did we have perfection with our first airplane, our first rifle, our first ship? I mean, they'd still be testing at Kitty Hawk, for God's sake, if you wanted perfection."

It's not perfect, not yet, but we are closing in on a reliable defense to ballistic missile attack. Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner calls it "an integrated system of ground, sea and space-based sensors, ground and sea-based radars and an advanced command and control, battle management and communication system designed to detect and track a hostile ballistic missile, then launch and guide an interceptor to destroy the target."

The system is layered. The THAAD (Theater High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system is comprised of transportable missile launchers, radar, and command and control technology. The Army plans for two THAAD battalions, each with four batteries. Each battery will consist of nine launch vehicles, ground based radar, and two mobile tactical operations centers. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor. Production of test missiles began at its new plant in Pike County, Alabama in May 2004, and a successful THAAD test flight occurred last December.

In the past few months the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has successfully tested its Forward-Based X-Band radar, which acquires and tracks ICBMs, and also had a successful test of its Cobra Dane radar--based in Shemya, Alaska--against an air-launched target.