September 24, 2008
Morning Edition (NPR), 7:10 AM
STEVE INSKEEP: Next, weíll continue this weekís look at the U.S. missile defense system. It has cost $60 billion since the start of the Bush administration and there are a lot of questions about how well it works.
Yesterday, we took you to Fort Greely, Alaska where the centerpiece of the system, the ground-based interceptor has been deployed. Today, we will take you on board the USS Lake Erie in the waters off the coast of Hawaii for an effort to intercept a missile in flight.
Hereís NPRís Mike Shuster.
MIKE SHUSTER: The U.S. missile defense system is an intricate interweaving of various missile interceptor systems supported by advanced radars and satellite sensors. There is a sharp debate about its cost and its capabilities, but the system has seen meaningful progress at sea, says Lieutenant General Henry Obering, Director of the Pentagonís Missile Defense Agency.
LT. GEN. HENRY OBERING [Director, Missile Defense Agency]: The furthest along that we have today is probably our Aegis sea-based component. It has been through some pretty good operational testing to explore all of its envelope or quite a bit of its envelope of operation.
SHUSTER: Itís early June on the four deck of the USS Lake Erie, an Aegis cruiser. The Lake Erie is sailing in the deep blue waters off Hawaii and readying itself to try to shoot down another missile launched about 180 miles away near the island of Kauai. The U.S. Navy began the development of the Aegis combat system more than 30 years ago; essentially, it was a marriage of advanced radar and signals capabilities with a variety of guided missiles deployed on cruisers and destroyers. Their task? Defend aircraft carriers and the carriersí battle group.
When the Bush administration decided to make a big push for missile defense, it figured that the missiles the Aegis ships were using against aircraft and other ships might be modified as missile interceptors. The key was the shipís advanced radars, says Lieutenant Commander Andrew Bates, the shipís former combat systems officer.
NAVY LT. CMDR. ANDREW BATES: This is the trademark octagonal array for the SPY-1 radar. Its military designation is SPY; so obviously, itís pronounced the spy. Itís a happy coincidence.
SHUSTER: The SPY-1 radar panels are positioned on both the port and starboard sides of the ship, as well as facing fore and aft. They give the ship full 360-degree eyes to watch the sea and skies. The Lake Erie is on alert for missile attack and the plan is to launch its own missiles known as SM-2s against the attacker. The shipís radar illuminators will guide the missile interceptors to the attacking missiles explains Lieutenant Commander Bates.
BATES: When that missile is heading toward its target, itís receiving uplink commands from the Aegis weapons systems. But that final bit of guidance that it gets just prior to intercept comes from these illuminators, which will point at the target, shine a beam of RF energy onto that target. The reflection from that RF energy off of that target will be picked up by the missile and it will be used to guide it in on its final stage.
SHUSTER: In the three days before the actual missile flight test, the Lake Erieís crew has been through two dry runs and one dress rehearsal that simulate missile attacks. Much of the key activity takes place in the darkened combat information center. What little light there is comes from the glow of numerous computer and video screens.
BATES: During the shipboard countdown, we are taking the system to a higher and higher state of readiness, which is what we would do if we were coming upon a vulnerability window where we had gotten intelligence that a launch may occur. At a certain point, weíll get to, basically, a stable sit and wait type of situation. The system is set up correctly. Itís in a high state of readiness. And now the crew and the sailors here in CIC are looking for any indications of a ballistic missile launch.
SHUSTER: The Lake Erie is the same ship that back in February successfully shot down a disabled U.S. spy satellite that was threatening to fall out of orbit carrying half a ton of toxic fuel. The Lake Erieís missile defense system was not designed for that mission, but with modifications, the Missile Defense Agency determined it could do the job.
In a radio hookup between the Pentagon and the Lake Erie, Rear Admiral Brad Hicks explained the difference between the satellite shot and the upcoming test flight.
NAVY RADM. BRAD HICKS: The satellite Ė we had a predicted time we were going to intercept it. We picked a time where we wanted to intercept it to optimize the probability of success.
So the mission was totally different.
SHUSTER: The satellite was 130 miles above the Earth traveling at more than five miles per second. The missile to be intercepted in the Lake Erieís flight test will be only 12 miles high moving at about a quarter of that speed.
On the bridge on flight test day, Commander Rich Martel, the Lake Erieís executive officer, recalled Februaryís satellite shot.
NAVY CMDR. RICH MARTEL: Even todayís scenario, we know something is going to happen this morning, but the watchstanders still donít know when itís going to happen. In February we knew we should expect the satellite to pass through our area at this particular time, and in general on that day, the crew was very calm. We had done a lot of training. We were prepared.
SHUSTER: As tension builds, Commander Martel takes to the shipís intercom to tell the crew if they want to watch the missile launch, they can go out on the fantail toward the stern of the ship.
MARTEL: No personnel on the flight deck or the missile deck, only on the fantail. In the event that the missile once it takes off self-destructs, all personnel should take cover against the bulkheads or inside the skin of the ship from the fantail. Thatís all. Donít give up the ship.
SHUSTER: Tension continues to build and then on the internal net, Fireball, the code word for the launch of a hostile missile. Lieutenant Commander Bates says initial indications are that the attacking missile has been destroyed.
BATES: We can see an explosion around the first missile that was launched and at the same time I visually saw the explosion I heard over the internal nets the missile system supervisor say Mark India, so mark intercept.
SHUSTER: Later, Rear Admiral Hicks, speaking from the Pentagon, pronounced the flight test a success.
HICKS: Both SM-2s intercepted the target and destroyed it. We fired two to improve our probability of success, knowing that itís a terminal engagement and they fired within a second and a half of each other.
SHUSTER: The Lake Erie has successfully tested SM-2 missiles against short-range missile attacks in the atmosphere and has destroyed medium-range missiles in the midcourse of attack using the SM-3. Even sharp critics of the Missile Defense Agency like Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information, acknowledged that sea-based missile defenses do show some promise.
PHILIP COYLE [Center for Defense Information]: The Navy has had a greater success rate in terms of successes where theyíve done flight intercept tests. Theyíve had a greater success rate than the big ground base system has had.
SHUSTER: And so the Navy is already deploying this missile defense system on more of its cruisers and destroyers. For use, says the Lake Erieís captain, Ron Boxall, anywhere itís needed.
NAVY CAPT. RON BOXALL: As you look at the proliferation of ballistic missiles throughout the world, I think itís myopic to view any specific country as the target. Our job is to produce the capability and go out and make it employable and available to the fleet and combatant commanders.
SHUSTER: Admiral Hicks says 15 ships have anti-missile capabilities now. Most are operating in the Pacific with a few deployed in or near the Middle East.
HICKS: We have now taken a look at what we require for the Fifth Fleet in the Arabian Gulf and we, in fact, have assets in theater now. We have also had our first asset that operated in the eastern Meditteranean.
SHUSTER: In fact, U.S. missile defense is about to go global with the inclusion of ground-based missiles stationed in Europe. Tomorrow, the clash over U.S. missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.