IT'S dubbed the world's largest bull's-eye. Made up of a ring of 100 tiny Pacific island atolls 4,300 miles from California, Kwajalein Atoll is an unusual United States Army missile testing range.
Thirty minutes after a Minuteman or MX missile is unleashed from California's Vandenberg Air Force base, it streaks earthward and plunges into the 1,100 square-mile lagoon here. The rocket's every twitch is minutely tracked by sophisticated radar dishes. These dishes are housed in white geodesic domes that dot the mostly uninhabited coral atolls surrounding the lagoon.
In fact, Kwajalein ranks as one of the most important US military facilities in the world. The advanced, long-range radar systems track about two dozen ballistic missile tests a year. And, because of their location, the radar systems provide the US with the first look at every satellite launched from the Soviet Union.
``Kwaj'' (rhymes with lodge) also keeps an eye on shuttle missions for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And thanks to Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), workers on Kwajalein are busy getting the base ready for yet another role: testing ``star wars'' systems.
Kwaj has ``a unique set of facilities that don't exist anywhere ... in the United States,'' says SDI chief scientist O'Dean Judd. ``Its high-precision radar systems allow us to determine exactly what's going on in SDI tests,'' says Dr. Judd from SDI headquarters in Washington.
Defense budget cuts, if passed by Congress, are likely to delay only one of the four SDI projects slated for testing at Kwajalein, Judd says.
The US pays the Republic of the Marshall Islands almost $10 million annually to lease 11 Kwajalein atolls.
The test facility is the largest employer in the Marshall Islands, providing about 1,000 jobs. The Marshall Islands became an independent nation under the Compact of Free Association in 1986. The US still provides for the republic's defense.
Base spokesman Pat Robbins carefully points out that Kwaj lagoon isn't filling up with scrap missiles.
``We have a clean lagoon policy. We have our own two-man mini-sub and scuba divers who go out and pick up the debris.''
But the lagoon cleaners may have missed one. After a launch in July 1987, a missile nose cone containing sensitive flight data couldn't be found. There's speculation that it was snatched by a Soviet mini-sub before US divers could recover it. But Pentagon officials say it also could have been buried in the sandy sea bed or lost when it was shipped back to the US. When asked about the missile, Robbins gives a terse, ``No comment.''
Starting next year, a series of tests will begin on a ballistic missile interceptor system, known as ERIS (Exoatmospheric Reentry-vehicle Interceptor Subsystem). ERIS is a ground-launched, non-nuclear rocket designed to look for and destroy incoming nuclear missiles before they re-enter the earth's atmosphere.
ERIS may get targeting assistance from AOA (Airborne Optical Adjunct). This project consists of a Boeing 767 aircraft outfitted with 33,000 infrared ``eyes'' to track hundreds of incoming missiles. The purpose of the AOA is to develop sensors and a super-fast computer system which can analyze multiple target courses.
Flight tests have already begun in the US.
The AOA computer has shown it can process 20 times the information handled by the current Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
Ultimately, similar systems will be put on satellites and on top of rockets such as ERIS to provide targeting information, Judd says. AOA flight tests at Kwaj will begin late this year or early 1990.
Another project similar to ERIS is one know as HEDI (High Endoatmospheric Defense Interceptor). HEDI is being designed to destroy nuclear warheads after they've re-entered the earth's atmosphere.