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Physicists contest missile shield claims

A number of top U.S-based physicists say the United States used inaccurate claims to reassure NATO allies about U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, but the Pentagon stands by its claims.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A number of top U.S-based physicists have concluded the United States used inaccurate claims to reassure NATO allies about U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.

They say the planned Polish-based interceptors and a radar system in the Czech Republic could target and catch Russian missiles, thus threatening Russia’s nuclear deterrent. That view supports Russia’s criticism of the system. Russia adamantly opposes the plan and the dispute has escalated U.S.-Russian tensions to the highest point since the Cold War.

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense agency, which oversees the missile program, considers the scientists’ analyses flawed. The U.S. says the missile system is intended to counter a threat from Iran and could not take out Russian missiles. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has dismissed Russia’s concerns as “ludicrous.”

But the six scientists — whose backgrounds include elite American universities, research labs and high levels of government — said in interviews that Russia’s concerns are justified.

“The claim by the Missile Defense Agency is not correct,” says Theodore Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a longtime missile defense critic. “And it is hard to understand how they could get something so basic wrong.”

The agency’s claims were made as part of an intensive U.S. diplomatic push early this year. Senior officials, including President Bush, traveled to Europe to convince allies that Russian worries about U.S. missile capabilities were unfounded.

The trips followed threats by Russia to retarget its missiles at Europe. Some European officials had expressed skepticism about the plans and recommended further consultations with Russia. Public opinion in some countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, ran against the U.S. plans.

Were reassurances misleading?
To reassure the foreign governments and the public, Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency, presented slideshows intended to demonstrate that the Europe-based system was designed to counteract missiles only from Iran. The allies have not challenged the MDA’s claims.

The physicists have told The Associated Press that Obering’s presentations were misleading and inconsistent on key points. Postol, a former scientific adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations, and George Lewis, associate director of the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University, have written a study of the MDA claims. Postol presented their findings Thursday in Washington.

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“If the United States does not provide the allies with accurate information about the decisions they are being asked to participate in and that have direct relevance for their national security as well as ours, the credibility of the United States will continue to diminish,” he said in his presentation.

Congressional testimony by Postol in 1992 helped rebut government claims of a high success rate in shooting down Iraqi scud missiles with Patriot missiles in the Persian Gulf War.

Pavel Podvig, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, made his own estimates and confirmed Postol and Lewis’ findings. Podvig, a Russian physicist, has been critical of both U.S. and Russian missile defense claims.

Outside opinions
Three other physicists also reviewed Postol’s findings and told The Associated Press that they found them accurate:

  • Richard Garwin, a National Science Award winner, who is credited with the design of the first hydrogen bomb. Garwin served on the Rumsfeld Commission, an independent panel appointed by Congress in the 1990s to assess the threat to the United States from ballistic missiles.
  • Philip Coyle, a former associate director of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Coyle was assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration in charge of testing weapons systems.
  • David Wright, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear nonproliferation and environmental advocacy group.

The MDA has stood by their claims that the interceptors could not catch Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.

“The basic fact of the matter is that we would never make a statement like that unless we knew it was true,” said MDA spokesman Rick Lehner.

Assessing the slides
In one of Obering’s slide presentations, labeled “Missile Defense for U.S. Allies and Friends,” an image illustrates the trajectory of a Russian ICBM from a point east of Moscow toward Washington. The slide, which also illustrates the Polish interceptors, says in bold script “Interceptors Cannot Catch Russian Missiles.”

“The reason we selected Poland and the Czech Republic for the potential positions of these assets is because it was optimum for the Iranian threat,” Obering said after a meeting with German officials in Berlin on March 15. “They are not positioned to where we can even catch the Russian missiles with these interceptors.”

The dissenting scientists say that both those claims are incorrect: The interceptors could catch Russian ICBMs; the interceptors and the radar would be better positioned closer to Iran to counter a threat from its missiles.

Postol concluded that the MDA significantly understated the speed that their interceptors can reach when their boosters burn out and overstated how long they would need to track a missile by launching the interceptors.

How interceptors work
While all six scientists are skeptical that the U.S. missile defense system can work, they believe that in terms of raw speed, U.S. interceptors in Poland could catch a Russian ICBM launched from western Russia at any part of the continental United States. In Postol’s model, the intercept would occur at a point over the North Pole.

The Missile Defense Agency says the Polish rockets would reach a burnout speed of 6.3 kilometers (3.9 miles) per second, roughly the speed of the Russian missiles depicted in Obering’s slides. At that speed, the interceptors could not catch the Russian missiles.

But Postol says the interceptors could top 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) per second.

Responding to Postol’s criticism, the MDA said Postol made assumptions about the interceptors that are based on theory, but in the real world they do not work as well. Not only are the interceptors one-third slower, their rocket motors’ thrust is not as efficient when tested, and to get to Russian missiles they would be going through various stresses that exceed what would be considered normal design.

The MDA presented a chart of rocket motor efficiency from tests and noted that Postol’s estimates did not reflect what happens in the real world.

But Garwin countered that at least one rocket motor was more efficient than a Postol estimate.

Missile Defense Agency responds
On Thursday, MDA posted a statement on its Web site.

“MDA stands by its figures, which are real, not hypothetical, and are derived from actual hardware and software performance data from actual flight tests,” the statement said. The statement also charged that Postol was overly optimistic about the interceptor capabilities.

Obering claimed in slides that the European system would expand protection from a U.S.-based system to parts of East Asia. Postol said that could not be true if the European interceptors were moving as slowly as the MDA is claiming.

The scientists have not disputed another argument used by U.S. officials that the 10 interceptors planned for Poland would be easily overwhelmed by Russia’s vast arsenal, leading one supporter of missile defense to conclude that even if the scientists are correct, the U.S. argument holds up.

“I don’t think it changes the basic assertion of the administration that this does not pose a threat to Russia,” said Baker Spring, a national security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

However, Russia has expressed worries that once the bases are established, they could be expanded with more interceptors and improved capabilities.