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Will missile shield really work?

The multibillion-dollar U.S. missile defense system due to begin operations this fall appears incapable of shooting down any incoming warheads, a group of scientists say.
/ Source: Reuters

The multibillion-dollar U.S. ballistic missile shield due to start operating by Sept. 30 appears incapable of shooting down any incoming warheads, an independent scientists' group said Thursday.

A technical analysis found "no basis for believing the system will have any capability to defend against a real attack," the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a 76-page report titled “Technical Realities.”

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency rejected the report, whose authors included Philip Coyle, the Defense Department's top weapons tester under former President Clinton from 1994 to 2001.

"Even the limited defense we are mounting provides a level of protection against an accidental or unauthorized (intercontinental ballistic missile) launch or a limited attack where we currently have no protection," said Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman. "It would be irresponsible to not make it available for the defense of our nation and our people."

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, concurred with the report's findings. The Bush administration should stop buying missile-defense interceptors until they are proven to work through "combat-realistic" operational tests, he said in a statement.

Missiles in Alaska and California
The Pentagon's initial deployment involves 10 interceptor missiles to be stored in silos in Alaska and California. The initial goal is to protect all 50 states against a limited strike from North Korean missiles that could be tipped with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.

The Boeing Co. is assembling the shield, which would use the interceptors to launch "kill vehicles" meant to pulverize targets in the mid-course of their flight paths, outside the Earth's atmosphere. Using infrared sensors, the vehicles would search the chill of space for the warheads. So far, the interceptors have scored hits five times in eight highly controlled tests.

The Missile Defense Agency "appears to be picking numbers out of thin air," the report said of past Pentagon assertions of a high probability of shooting down targets.

"There is no data to justify such an assumption," added the scientists' group, which is based in Cambridge, Mass. Its findings dovetailed with an audit last month by the congressional General Accounting Office that said the system's effectiveness would be "largely unproven" when the initial capability goes on alert.

Policy implications
Even unsophisticated countermeasures that could be mounted by countries such as North Korea remain an unsolved problem for midcourse defenses against long-range missiles, the scientists' report said.

Balloon decoys could be given the same infrared signature as a warhead by painting their surfaces, it said. The project could also be confused by sealing the warhead in a large balloon so the kill vehicle could not determine its exact location or tethering several balloons to it.

Overstating the defensive capabilities of the ground-based defense is dangerous, the group said.

"If the president is told that the system could reliably defend against a North Korean ballistic missile attack, he might be willing to accept more risks when making policy and military decisions," the report said.

"All indications are that it would not work," added Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist who is a co-author of the report and co-director of the group's global security program. "And the administration's statements that it will be highly effective are irresponsible nonsense."

Overall, the Pentagon estimates it will need $53 billion in the next five years to develop, field and upgrade a multilayered shield also involving systems based at sea, aboard modified Boeing 747 aircraft and in space.