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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2001

Technological time has come for missile defense

Robin Ranger's interest in missile defense began with childhood memories of the damage wreaked upon London by Nazi V-2 rockets in Word War II. “It gives you a different perspective when you've actually been a target of these things,” said Mr. Ranger, who directs the program on missile defense at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies at Britain's Lancaster University.

Mr. Ranger likens those who say missile defenses can't work to those in Britain in the 1930s who said air defenses couldn't work. In 1932, then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin declared “the bomber will always get through.” The only way to prevent bomber attacks, Mr. Baldwin said, was to maintain a fleet of bombers with which to threaten retaliation.

Deterrence failed, and Britain was pounded by the Luftwaffe. But fortunately, Mr. Baldwin was egregiously wrong about the invulnerability of the bomber.

Mr. Ranger notes that between the time Mr. Baldwin spoke and the start of the war, three technological developments - the invention of radar, the development of fast pursuit aircraft like the Spitfire and the Hurricane, and systems integration - revolutionized the potential for air defense. Air defenders won the Battle of Britain. Mr. Ranger believes missile defenders are in a comparable position today.

“Ballistic missile defense is a concept whose technological time has come,” he said. “The threats are essentially scaled up V-2 missiles. The offense is pretty much a 60-year-old technology. The defense is 2001 technology.”

If missile defenders weren't shackled by political constraints, they could, at reasonable cost, build systems which could defend effectively against the kinds of missiles that “rogue nations” such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea have, or are likely to obtain in the intermediate future, Mr. Ranger thinks.

That also was the consensus of 220 experts brought together last month by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. They concluded the United States “should move as rapidly as possible to deploy a multilayered missile defense with ground-based, space-based, and sea-based components, and should deploy a missile defense that includes allies,” said IFPA president Robert Pfaltzgraff.

Now that it's been done a number of times, opponents no longer argue that it is impossible to “hit a bullet with a bullet.” Instead, they say it won't work because it would be easy to fool.

“The planned [missile defense] system could be defeated by technically simple countermeasures,” said the Union of Concerned Scientists in a study last year authored by MIT professor Theodore Postol. “Such countermeasures would be available to any emerging missile state that deploys a long-range ballistic missile.”

“[Postol] totally overstates the case,” responds Stan Orman, who designed the “penetration aids” for the Chevaline warhead, Britain's upgrade to the Polaris missile.

“There is no question that countermeasures can be devised,” he said. “But it took us 13 years, $2 billion in 1980 dollars, and considerable help from the United States to devise countermeasures for much simpler ABM systems. I doubt many rogue states will have those resources available to them.”

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail him at jkelly@post-gazette.com.



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