March 16, 2008 Sunday Morning (CBS), 9:00 AM
CHARLES OSGOOD, host: Dazzling space weaponry nearly stole the show in the 1977 movie "Star Wars." So when the US launched an effort a few years later to build a shield against Soviet missiles, Star Wars was the popular nickname that stuck. Then last month Star Wars was back in the headlines when a US missile successfully shot a runaway American satellite out of orbit.
The command post for this sky-high defense plan lies deep beneath the Colorado mountains. It is where our national security correspondent David Martin takes us for our SUNDAY MORNING cover story.
President RONALD REAGAN: My fellow Americans, thank you for sharing your time with me tonight.
DAVID MARTIN reporting: It was 25 years ago this month, a presidential address from the Oval Office.
REAGAN: What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to deter a Soviet attack? That we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies? (Footage of Reagan; computer-generated animation of missile defense system)
MARTIN: Ronald Reagan never used the words, but this will forever be known as the Star Wars speech, a term of gentle derision for his vision of battle stations in space destroying Soviet missiles with lasers. It never happened.
OFFSCREEN VOICE: Liftoff is confirmed.
MARTIN: But today there is a scaled-down version of Star Wars, not in space but on Earth; interceptors to defend not against an all-out Soviet attack, but against a handful of missiles launched by North Korea or Iran.
So this is Star Wars light?
Lt. Gen. TREY OBERING: If you want to call it Star Wars light, because I have no problem with that term.
MARTIN: Lieutenant General Trey Obering is the man in charge of building a system that can shoot down incoming ballistic missiles; the proverbial hitting a bullet with a bullet.
OBERING: I was a big fan of the "Star Wars" movies and when you think about what that was involving, it was I think the force of good vs. the forces of evil in the universe.
MARTIN: Obering's forces of good include a giant radar floating on an oil platform in the Pacific Ocean, nearly two dozen interceptor missiles in underground silos in Alaska and California and still more interceptors on Navy cruisers. One of those blew up that out of control satellite a few weeks ago, the first real shootdown by a system that to date has cost $115 billion but which most Americans don't even know exists.
We have a missile defense system today.
OBERING: Yes, sir. We have a missile defense system today.
MARTIN: As we're speaking, someone is sitting at a screen watching for that North Korean missile to hit?
OBERING: Yes, sir. That's a fact. (Footage of control room; military personnel) We have--we have crews on alert that are watching and protecting the United--the United States from that potential threat.
MARTIN: This may be one of the best kept secrets in Washington.
OBERING: Yes, sir.
MARTIN: This is Cheyenne Mountain, built deep underground in the 1960s with these 25-ton glass doors to survive a Soviet nuclear strike. Today it's a headquarters for defending the US against a North Korean missile attack.
MARTIN: Located in the Colorado Rockies, the alert center at Cheyenne Mountain would get the first warning of a missile launch from a satellite whose infrared sensors detect the rocket plume as it lifts off the pad. Since some 30 counties have ballistic missiles, Lieutenant Colonel James Cobb says, test launches happen all the time.
Lt. Col. JAMES COBB: Good days you can have five or six. You can go several weeks without any.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Somewhere in the world.
COBB: Anywhere in the world.
MARTIN: As the missile climbs into the sky, it will be picked up by radars and Cobb will have just minutes to determine if it's a threat to the US.
COBB: I can tell you where it came from and I can tell you where it's pointed.
MARTIN: Computers predict the trajectory of the missile.
Where is the red dot located?
COBB: That would be North Korea.
MARTIN: So if a missile were fired from North Korea, then that box would--or the long rectangle would be where it could come down?
COBB: The threatened areas is how we refer to it. So that is correct.
And if you look, there's a little triangle in Alaska. That's a predicted impact point.
MARTIN: Once the missile launch is detected it would be about 45 minutes before it landed on US soil, although the decision to shoot at it must be made much faster than that.
OFFSCREEN VOICE: Go to system state of alert.
UNIDENTIFIED SERVICEMEMBER: Bravo alpha echo zero zero one, target Dallas, Texas.
Lt. Col. TERRANCE DOUGLAS: This time we have a bravo alpha echo zero zero one. The asset threatened at this time is Dallas, Texas, and we will...
MARTIN: Twenty miles away at Schriever Air Force Base, a five-man team would track the incoming warhead and attempt to shoot it down with those interceptors in Alaska and California.
DOUGLAS: We have--are we met and we have a valid track and requesting weapons free for the threat into Dallas, Texas, at this time.
MARTIN: Since the chances of a bolt out of the blue attack are exceedingly low, the team headed by Lieutenant Colonel Terrance Douglas spends most of its time on watch practicing.
DOUGLAS: Roger. For the exercise, we do have a valid track, bravo alpha echo zero zero three into Seattle, Washington, requesting weapons free at this time.
MARTIN: How often do you guys do these exercises?
DOUGLAS: We'll do anywhere from three to seven during our shift.
MARTIN: In this exercise, three missiles are headed toward the US; one for Dallas, another for San Francisco and a third for Seattle.
MARTIN: You're looking up there and it's like a video game. If it were the real thing, you guys'd be playing for all the marbles.
DOUGLAS: This particular job here is a--is amazing. You're protecting millions of folk because of what may be fired at you. And they wouldn't know it. They'd be walking down the street, wouldn't know it. Have no idea.
MARTIN: It's an exercise, no real missiles are fired by either side and it all goes like clockwork.
UNIDENTIFIED SERVICEMEMBER: Answer, we are now past time to intercept on bravo alpha echo zero zero three targeting Seattle.
MARTIN: Would that missile defense system that we have today be able to defend against that kind of attack?
PHIL COYLE: Unfortunately, no, it wouldn't.
MARTIN: Phil Coyle used to be the Pentagon's chief weapons tester. Today he's a critic of missile defense.
COYLE: The Achilles' heel of missile defense is decoys and countermeasures.
MARTIN: By decoys you mean what?
COYLE: There would be objEcts like a balloon, for example.
MARTIN: A balloon that would be released by the missile to draw the interceptor away from its target.
COYLE: And out in space, a lead brick and a feather travel at the same speed so the balloon and the reactory vehicle would be traveling alongside each other and you know--wouldn't know which to shoot at.
MARTIN: The missile which shot down that satellite last month scored a direct hit, but it did not have to contend with decoys.
General Obering admits today's system will not work against sophisticated decoys, but insists it can handle simple countermeasures available to second-class powers like North Korea and Iran.
OBERING: Since 2001, we have conducted 42 hit to kill flight tests. We were successful 34 of those 42 times since 2001. Thirty-four of 42 is pretty convincing.
MARTIN: Is it pretty convincing to you?
COYLE: No, because they're using information that no real enemy would ever give you in advance.
They're set up the way they are so that they won't fail. I mean, these are very expensive tests, can cost as much as $100 million, so they certainly don't want them to fail. It's embarrassing when they fail.
MARTIN: You're almost saying these tests are rigged.
COYLE: No, there's nothing wrong with them as far as tests go. The only thing is it doesn't prove that the system would work under realistic operational conditions.
MARTIN: If an enemy fired 42 nuclear-armed missiles at the United States, and you shot down 34 of them and the other eight got through, I don't think people would be saying pretty good.
OBERING: I understand that.
MARTIN: But isn't that the argument about missile defense, that only perfect counts?
OBERING: If we can't save everybody we shouldn't save anybody? I don't agree with that.
MARTIN: With $115 billion already spent, the missile defense agency is planning to spend another $50 billion over the next six years.
OBERING: A lot of money. A lot of money.
MARTIN: It's the single biggest item, isn't it?
OBERING: It's the single biggest research and development program within the department. But let's put this in context: If an American city is impacted by even a single missile, with a weapon of mass destruction that gets through, that would cause massive destruction and cost in the trillions.
MARTIN: If you're the president of the United States or the secretary of defense...
MARTIN: ...Iran is out there working on longer and longer range missiles.
MARTIN: Can you simply do nothing to defend against them?
COYLE: You ask most Americans shouldn't we defend ourselves, they're going to say yes. The problem is it's the most difficult thing the Pentagon has ever tried to do.
MARTIN: Stopping a single missile from landing on American soil is also likely to be the most expensive thing the Pentagon has ever tried to do.