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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 22nd, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 2 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 2

The 'Star Wars' not so far, far away

Recent threats put the spotlight back on Vandenberg

BY FRANK GONZALES

Ridiculed as “Star Wars” by critics, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or missile defense, that President Ronald Reagan initiated at the tail end of the Cold War appears to be coming of age.

On March 7, North Korea threatened to attack the United States with nuclear weapons after the United Nations passed new sanctions against the controversial country for having performed another nuclear weapon test. While North Korea is widely believed to be incapable of performing such an attack today, the delivery method of any future nuclear strike would undoubtedly be a warhead on a ballistic missile. It’s just such an attack that missile defense aims to prevent, and Vandenberg Air Force Base acts as the central testing site for this mission.

Since 1999, Vandenberg Air Force Base has played a major role in the missile defense program, now organized under the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The base is the test site for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense Program (GMD), having been host to 15 tests of this system, the most recent of which took place on Jan. 26.

Unlike with the offensive Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), all missile defense programs including GMD are defensive and have no offensive capabilities. Nevertheless, opponents of missile defense believe an effective missile defense system gives a nation a destabilizing, unfair advantage.

According to David Krieger, president of the Santa Barbara-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, “[The Russians] see [missile defense] as bringing instability to the strategic balance, undermining their deterrent capability and making them vulnerable to a U.S. first-strike attack. I see that as potentially stopping disarmament efforts and making the world a more dangerous place.”

While Russia may see missile defense as the harbinger of strategic instability, the current U.S. systems are aimed at defending against the danger posed by ballistic-missile-capable rogue states like North Korea. Along these lines, Krieger noted that an attack from an advanced nation would overwhelm the current system with decoys.

Regardless of its strategic consequences, testing continues. At Vandenberg, the GMD program is in full swing. To test it, the MDA launches an interceptor missile from a silo at Vandenberg after having launched a ballistic dummy missile from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. If all goes well, the interceptor destroys the dummy during its midcourse phase of flight over the Pacific Ocean. To do this, interceptors contain a kill vehicle, which is the payload part of the missile stacked on top of booster rockets. The kill vehicle detaches from the boosters after leaving the atmosphere and destroys the enemy warhead with kinetic energy.

In an e-mail to the Sun, MDA spokesman Richard Lehner explained the reasons why the military considers Vandenberg an ideal test site: “[The base] is the only location in the U.S. with the facilities for launching long-range missiles into the Pacific Test Range.” He went on to explain that Vandenberg also had the necessary infrastructure because it was an early test site for missile defense.

For every test at Vandenberg, the MDA brings in a number of defense contractors who’ve worked on developing the GMD missiles and kill vehicles, with Boeing leading the way.

“Boeing is the prime contractor for the GMD system. Orbital Sciences builds the booster rockets, and Raytheon builds the kill vehicle. They are two of the many subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers to Boeing,” Lehner said.

He also noted that the total cost for a test of the GMD system at Vandenberg is more than $200 million, including equipment, personnel, and test assessments. This comes out of the MDA’s budget, which is set by the U.S. Department of Defense.

These costs are another key point of opposition.

“I see missile defense basically as a waste of taxpayer money. And I see it as a means of transferring taxpayer money that could be used for education, housing, and health care,” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Krieger said.

As for the results of GMD testing at Vandenberg, a fact sheet provided by the MDA notes a success rate of eight out of the 15 intercept tests conducted there. To help understand why there’ve been more failures with the GMD tests compared to other defense systems, Lehner said, “The GMD is a very complex system with long-range interceptors defending against long-range ballistic missiles over a much greater distance and at faster speeds than the THAAD system [another system with a perfect test record] designed for shorter range missile defense in a regional setting.”

Opponents are more critical of the failures.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to work. They continue to test for missile defense, but many scientists say that missile defenses are never going to actually work to protect people in this country,” Krieger said.

Despite its failures, the program has had enough successes to allow for Vandenberg to house four silos of active GMD interceptors that work in conjunction with another 26 stationed at Fort Greely, Alaska, to defend against any potential threat.

However, the MDA doesn’t actually control GMD operations.

“That is done by U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Northern Command, and U.S. Pacific Command,” Lehner said.

The imperfect GMD system isn’t the only interceptor force being developed or already operational. The MDA’s current defense scheme is based on a layered combination of interceptors that work at different stages of a ballistic missile’s flight. The success rate for all interceptor tests combined since 2001 is 38 hits out of 49 tests. The different interceptors work by destroying an incoming missile in one of the four different phases of its flight; boost, ascent, midcourse, and terminal phases. The terminal phase is the last opportunity for an intercept before a missile reaches its target.

For the this phase, there are currently three types of interceptors: the PATRIOT missile, which NATO recently deployed to Turkey for defense against any Syrian attacks; the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which is run by the Navy and launched from ships; and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) program mentioned previously as having racked up 10 out of 10 intercepts in recent testing.

The success rate of some of these systems, especially under the stresses of real combat, shows that missile defense is indeed feasible, if still imperfect.

Nevertheless, Krieger and his colleagues believe the United States shouldn’t have withdrawn from the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty as it did in 2002 to pursue missile defense. Instead, he’d like to see the country champion a new treaty banning missile defense to create global strategic balance.

Still, missile defense is quickly becoming a major component of national defense. According to the MDA’s published budget data, since 1985 the program has gone through $149.5 billion of defense spending and projects a $7.75 billion budget for 2013. Of this amount, $903 million will go toward the GMD program, with Vandenberg taking center stage.

“We will continue testing at VAFB for many more years,” Lehner said, adding that GMD testing will continue as long as the system is operational.

To top it all off, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on March 15 that 14 additional interceptors will be deployed in response to North Korea’s recent provocations, costing an additional $1 billion. Some of these missiles might be stationed at Vandenberg.

With missile defense an apparent mainstay of U.S. strategic defense, Reagan might have told his critics, “I find your lack of faith disturbing”—just as Darth Vader told his Death Star subordinates.

Contact Intern Frank Gonzales at intern@santamariasun.com.