The concept: An Asian missile shield
A reclusive regime's missile sends neighbors in search of protection.
When North Korea launched a three-stage missile over the North Pacific last August, a Reagan-era defense concept and a pair of military acronyms regained the luster of public prominence they'd lacked for more than a decade. Suddenly the idea of protecting wide areas (theater missile defense or TMD) and even the entire US (ballistic missile defense or BMD) from missile attack is back on the agenda. Last month, both houses of Congress passed resolutions calling such systems a matter of national policy.Skip to next paragraph
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Not only the United States is involved. An ability to defend against missiles is a weapon in itself, so Russia is warning that an American BMD shield will destabilize arms-control agreements to reduce the number of nuclear missiles in the world.
And China, whose Premier Zhu Rongji is visiting Washington this week, insists that TMD in East Asia will ignite an arms race.
Today the Monitor focuses on TMD - what the technology promises to provide, why the US and other countries want it, and why even the discussion of missile defense in Asia causes controversy.
The concept is simple. Use radar and other means to detect an aggressor's rocket as it is taking off and then use a guided interceptor to shoot down the enemy missile before it does any damage. Hit a bullet with a bullet, in other words.
From that point forward, things get vastly complicated. With projectiles moving at incredible speeds and a margin of error of zero, putting the idea into practice hasn't been easy.
An Army-backed program to develop such a system failed its sixth test on March 29, although officials from the Pentagon and prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. voiced optimism about their efforts.
"Everything seemed to work very, very well with the exception, obviously, of what happened relative to the closing endgame for the missile," Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles, director of the US Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, told reporters. Officials said the "kill vehicle" missed the target by a mere 30 yards.
But the Pentagon has spent an estimated $50 billion, since the early 1980s, in developing this and other systems, causing critics to wonder if the "endgame" between missile and interceptor will ever get much closer.
Upper- and lower-tier systems
The TMD program is split between attempts to shoot down incoming missiles at a low altitude (about 12 to 15 miles) and "upper-tier" systems that try to hit the target when it is higher and farther away. The "lower-tier" programs, such as an advanced version of the Patriot missile used in the Gulf War, have had some successes, but they can cover only small areas, such as an airport or a military base.
The Army program tested last month is an upper-tier system, as is the Navy's Theaterwide Defense effort, technologies that would protect much wider areas.
The Theaterwide system, along with a Navy lower-tier system, would involve upgrading the capabilities of guided-missile cruisers and destroyers already afloat. These systems offer the advantage of easy mobility.
One defense-industry executive says that defending Japan from missile attack would require two of these advanced warships, and Taiwan would need only one.
North Korea's August missile launch took most of the rest of the world by surprise, but it seemed to underscore an official US report last summer that warned of emerging threats from "rogue nations."
North Korea says it launched a small satellite with a Taepo Dong three-stage rocket, although no other country has verified the existence of whatever went into orbit. Most worrisome to defense planners is that the missile showed that North Korea could put a warhead anywhere in Japan and, with upgrades, perhaps as far as Alaska or Hawaii.
North Korea is the bad guy of the moment, but the reality is that the country's Communist, xenophobic regime may not last as long as the decade it will likely take to develop and build TMD systems in East Asia. "North Korea provides a good excuse, but as a matter of fact the primary target is China," says Seizaburo Sato, a security specialist at the Institute for International Policy Studies in Tokyo.
Down the road
China's capabilities range from short-range rockets to intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, so the country poses a threat near and far. Professor Sato notes that no country is willing to say as much out loud for fear of angering officials in Beijing who are already anxious about TMD.