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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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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.