Just days before the election, 60 Minutes II did a hatchet job on
National Missile Defense — apparently because GOP presidential
candidate George W. Bush said he intended to deploy one, if elected.
Gov. Bush was elected anyway, so 60 Minutes II quickly updated their NMD
hatchet job and ran it, again,
the day after Christmas.
If you watched either 60 Minutes II episode, and have been reading these columns, you know that what Dan Rather really did was to expose one defect of the ABM system proposed by Clinton-Gore that the Bush-Cheney NMD system may well not even have.
The ABM system that we and the Soviets promised each other we wouldn’t build — by the 1972 ABM Treaty — would have been a nuke-hits-nuke system. It never occurred to anyone before Clinton-Gore came to town that anyone would waste a perfectly good, highly accurate, zillion dollar ICBM to deliver a few hundred pounds of anthrax spores to some farmer’s plowed field halfway around the world. So there was no requirement for our outgoing nuke to even hit — much less totally destroy — their incoming nukes. As the old adage has it, “Close only counts in horseshoes and exo-atmospheric enhanced-radiation nuke explosions.” Similarly, if several incoming nukes (or one nuke and several balloon decoys) were fairly close together, one of our outgoing nukes would take out all of them.
The full-blown nuke-hits-nuke system (now prohibited by the ABM Treaty) would have had to counter hundreds, perhaps thousands, of incoming nukes and decoys. Under an attack like that, the ABM target acquisition and battle-management problems are horrendous, perhaps unsolvable. But if only a few incoming targets need be acquired and destroyed or disabled exo-atmospherically, the problem of defending the American homeland against certain potential enemies — like North Korea — definitely becomes manageable.
But the 1991 Gulf War had come along and the Iraqis launched a few dozen
short-range highly inaccurate ballistic missiles (Scuds) in the general direction of Israel and Saudi Arabia. We were concerned that the Iraqi missiles might be carrying nuke warheads (which it turned out the Iraqis didn’t have) or chem-bio warheads (which it turned out the Iraqis did have, but didn’t use). So we attempted to intercept the Iraqi Scuds with our air defense missiles armed with conventional high-explosive warheads. Sometimes we intercepted them and destroyed the missile in air but sometimes, even when we intercepted the missile, the warhead — which is permanently attached to the missile — fell and exploded somewhere other than where it would have fallen if we hadn’t intercepted the missile. That is apparently what happened in the incident where more than a hundred American servicemen were killed or wounded in their barracks in Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf War anti-Scud system was a bullet-hits-bullet system. As it turned out, we needn’t have used — even had they been available — ABM nukes against the Iraqi Scuds because none of them carried nukes. But, goes the post-Gulf-War thinking, if the Iraqi Scuds had carried anthrax spores and we had used our ABM nukes against them, we still might not have killed all the anthrax spores yet would have filled the night sky with wartime nuke explosions. That is, not only would the cure have been worse than the disease, but the disease would not have been cured, either. Hence, the requirement for an exo-atmospheric Scud sure-kill mechanism in case the Iraqis ever again invade Kuwait.
But hark! Suppose next time the Iraqis do have nuke warheads — and much more accurate, longer-range, ballistic missiles? Or suppose next time it is the North Koreans or the Indians or the Pakistanis who have nuke warheads and accurate long-range ballistic missiles? And what if it is American cities that we are trying to defend, not Middle East deserts? What then?
Well, the anti-nuke Clinton-Gore administration was not about to go the nuke ABM route. They went the Gulf War upgrade bullet-hits-bullet route. The rationale of the Clinton-Gore deep thinkers was that the incoming bullets — launched into exo-atmospheric trajectory by zillion dollar missiles — based 7,000 miles away — might have inside them a few hundred dollars worth of nerve gas or bacteria or viruses, rather than million-dollar nukes. They were afraid that a near miss by one of our ABM nukes would not kill all those bacteria or viruses.
So the Clinton-Gore half-hearted solution (to the congressional mandate that the U.S. be provided a National Missile Defense) was to propose to site an upgraded Gulf War bullet-hits-bullet ABM system in Alaska. And what is the basis of the Dan Rather hatchet job on such a system? Well, Rather claims that it would be easy for an enemy to defeat such a system. If the enemy knows you are going to have to hit his warhead dead-center with a hypervelocity inert bullet, it is a relatively simple task for him to deploy several decoy balloons in the near vicinity of the real warhead.
The way the Clinton-Gore Gulf War upgrade system is supposed to work is that U.S. satellites, ever on the alert, would detect the launch of the North Korean ICBM. Then, upon being notified of the launch, Alaskan-based radars, ever on the alert, would immediately acquire and track the ballistic exo-atmospheric trajectory of the warhead released by the ICBM. Then, upon being notified of the warhead trajectory, the U.S. ABM missile, ever on the alert, would immediately be launched from some pad, some place, and the hypervelocity kill vehicle — tipped with an inert bullet — would be boosted outside the atmosphere and pointed in the general direction of the incoming warhead. The hypervelocity kill vehicle, once pointed in the right direction, would separate from the booster and go screaming in to
destroy the target.
But, wait. As the hypervelocity kill vehicle approaches the target, its onboard sensors realize that instead of there being just one incoming warhead, there are several “targets.” The hypervelocity kill vehicle realizes that some of the targets are probably decoys. Which is the real target and which are the decoys?
According to Dan, neither the Clinton-Gore ABM system, nor any other ABM system, could ever work. For proof, he notes that TRW, a company that was bidding on a Defense Department contract to supply the software that would help the Clinton-Gore hypervelocity kill vehicle figure out which target was the real warhead, had claimed to have produced software that could do the job. Dan and his
panel of experts claimed that the TRW software couldn’t do the job and that quite a few people at TRW ought to go to jail for claiming that it could.
But, even though the whole basis of the 60 Minutes claim that no ABM system can work was that TRW’s software was no good, it turns out TRW didn’t get the contract! Instead, Raytheon got the contract to write the software to help the Clinton-Gore hypervelocity kill vehicle figure out which target is the real warhead.
So, what’s the moral of this story? Well, you may have noticed that the big problem is not going to be TRW or Raytheon developing a system that can figure out which target is the real warhead. If someone halfway around the world has launched, via a zillion dollar ballistic missile, several “bogeys” that seem to be heading for Chicago, let’s not fool around with a Clinton-Gore hypervelocity inert kill vehicle (no matter how smart). If we’re lucky enough to spot them coming, just nuke every bogey in sight and ask questions later.
And as for building a perfect, “leak proof” NMD system, Chairman Curt Weldon had it right on the 60 Minutes II: “If we don’t build new ships, we’ll still have our old ships; and if we don’t build new planes, we’ll still have our old planes; but if we don’t build a limited national missile defense, we’ll have nothing.”