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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.

An airborne laser is also being developed, a chemical oxygen iodine weapon fitted to a Boeing 747. It is designed to heat the enemy missile's skin, causing structural failure. A ground-based test firing in December 2005--a "full duration lase at operational power"--showed that the laser had sufficient strength to destroy missiles. An in-flight test is scheduled for the end of this year.

But it's not all mere testing: deployment is underway. "Ballistic missile defense is real," says Rear Admiral Kathleen Paige, Missile Defense Agency program director. "It is available today."

Last year, two additional ground-based midcourse interceptors--anti-missile missiles--were placed at the launching facility at Fort Greely, Alaska, bringing the total number to eight. Two more were added at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The technology is called hit-to-kill, where the enemy missile is destroyed when the defending missile collides with it. Air Force Major Todd Fleming, of the 30th Space Wing Public Affairs Office, likens it to "hitting a bullet with a bullet." These interceptors "can be brought to alert status in an emergency but they are not yet on 24/7 alert," Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner said.

The USS Lake Erie is part of the Aegis system, which continues to grow. Aegis is an integrated missile guidance system, which uses AN/SPY-1 phased-array radar manufactured by Lockheed Martin and SM-3 surface-to-air missiles built by Raytheon. By the end of 2008, 15 U.S. Navy ships will be equipped with Aegis capability.

General Obering sums it up: "Today, our nation has a limited, but real defensive capability against short, medium, and long-range ballistic missiles."

Tomorrow it won't be so limited, and our allies know it--they're jumping on board. The most recent test of the system occurred in March, another SM-3 launched from the Lake Erie. This time the SM-3's nosecone was a product of the Japan Defense Agency. A standard SM-3 must maneuver in flight to eject the kill vehicle. The Japanese invented a clamshell nosecone, which opened like a shell to more quickly release the kill vehicle without the SM-3 maneuvering. It was another success, and the target missile was vaporized. Japan contributes $1 billion a year to American missile defense efforts, and is currently installing the Aegis system on four Kongo-class destroyers. The United States and Japan are scheduled to sign an agreement later this month to develop and manufacture an enhanced version of the SM-3 missile.

Australia and the United States have signed a memorandum of understanding regarding future Australian participation in ballistic missile defense. "You know, a few years ago very sound scientists were saying . . . 'This is still decades away,'" Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill said. "And already in trials now we are seeing intercepts in really quite extraordinary circumstances." Australia is focusing on the Jindalee over-the-horizon high-frequency radar. "It is in Australia's national interest to play a part," Minister Hill said.

Our steadfast ally Poland is in too. Last month the United States proposed holding talks with Warsaw to discuss basing part of the anti-missile system on Polish soil. "Of course we said 'yes' and we are awaiting details," Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said.

So is India, probably. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced an agreement with the United States to share space-related technologies. The diplomats have termed it "an expanded dialogue" on missile defense.

Italy, Germany, and the U.S. are jointly developing the Medium Extended Air Defense System, called MEADS, which uses the hit-to-kill PAC 3 missile.

Great Britain has agreed to upgrade the radar system at Fylingdales, in Yorkshire, to meet missile defense requirements. The United States operates a missile defense radar in Thule, Greenland, with Denmark's permission.

Israel Aircraft Industries, Boeing, and Raytheon are developing the Arrow missile interceptor as a defense against intermediate range ICBMs.

Canada may come around. Given the chance during the recent election to rule out participation in the U.S. missile defense program, new Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to do so. And two weeks ago in Ottawa, Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor and U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins signed a new North American Aerospace Defense Command treaty.

It's called a new "forward-looking consensus," says Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation. She adds that our allies are ridding themselves of the Cold War notion that vulnerability is stabilizing.

And the father of missile defense is not being forgotten: last month a new installation at Vandenberg Air Force Base was named The Ronald W. Reagan Missile Defense Site.

James Thayer is a frequent contributor to The Daily Standard. His twelfth novel, The Gold Swan, has been published by Simon & Schuster.