It came as no surprise when defence secretary Geoff Hoon told MPs that his instinct was to grant a US request to upgrade the Fylingdales radar station in North Yorkshire as part of its Son of Star Wars missile defence programme.
Opposition to the project, formally known as National Missile Defence (NMD), would have struck a jarring note when set against Tony Blair’s strong support for the Bush presidency in other areas.
But according to defence experts there are plenty of risks and very few rewards for the UK in getting involved in what will surely be one of the great technological and strategic gambles of the 21st century. If the missile shield were ever made to work it would not be capable of protecting the UK. In fact, this country would become part of the shield itself, as the Fylingdales early warning system would make a likely first target in any attack (see sidebar). It is also conceivable that most aggressors would develop effective countermeasures to foil the system altogether.
NMD under Bush is a scaled-down version of the hopelessly ambitious Star Wars programme of the Reagan era. It is intended to be a flexible defence against ‘rogue states’ that possess or may develop ballistic missiles capable of threatening the US mainland, its troops or its allies.
Bush wants a rudimentary system working by the end of 2004, which itself appears highly optimistic given the huge technical challenges of hitting ‘a bullet with a bullet’ – the basis of the US efforts – and a research, development and testing programme that is patchy at best (see sidebar).
According to Alex Nicoll, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Bush made a canny move when he lumped very basic anti-missile research into the same pot as the ultra-advanced development activity more usually associated with Star Wars technology.
‘It probably means that by the time of the next election he will be able to show some progress,’ said Nicoll. ‘But they will still be a long way from what is usually thought of as NMD and the big questions will resurface about whether it is worth it, especially if the testing record continues not to be very good.’
That point may come sooner rather than later. At a time when the US military is stretched in other areas, and the economy is struggling, Bush’s plans are already coming under scrutiny from those who wonder whether America’s taxpayers are going to get value for their dollars. The sums involved are staggering. Depending on which estimate you accept, the US has already spent $70bn-$100bn (£40-60bn) on various failed incarnations of NMD.
Development of the current Bush-sponsored plan is running at about $8bn (£5bn) annually, and the design, testing and scaling-up of missile defence is expected to cost more than $230bn (£140bn) by 2025.
For this sort of outlay – and despite the wide latitude given to the Bush administration in matters of defence since September 11 – a vocal group of US politicians and technologists have claimed that more cast-iron guarantees that the system will work are needed.
NMD has faced claims that if it were any other defence project it would have been shut down, or at least brought under the most draconian controls. Its supporters suggest that the sheer scale and ambition of the project necessitate a fundamental shift in thinking – one that its critics have so far been unable to manage.
They say the desired end product – protection of the US and its allies from missile attack – is so uniquely desirable that NMD should not be bracketed with traditional defence projects such as the development of a new bomber aircraft.
Instead it has more in common with epoch-making undertakings such as the space programme or cancer research. In both cases, they point out, huge latitude for trial and error is justified and every breakthrough is painstakingly and expensively won – but the end justifies the means.
Critics say that at this point NMD runs straight into a nasty trap, from which there may be no escape. When NASA was planning its early moon shots nobody was plotting how to blow an Apollo out of the sky. And there are unlikely to be teams of scientists developing ways to make cancer resistant to any future cure. In the defence industry, however, the concept of countermeasures is both well-established and understood. For every attack there will be a defence, and for every defence there will be a further countermeasure designed to thwart it.
Any nation or group with the technical capacity to develop a warhead, say NMD’s critics, would also possess the wherewithal to create increasingly sophisticated countermeasures to baffle a missile defence system.
Sceptical scientists and engineers suggest a range of countermeasures which they claim could be deployed relatively easily. These include dividing an incoming chemical or biological missile into ‘submunitions’ – tiny warheads each containing a quantity of deadly agent – too numerous for them all to be blocked. Nuclear weapons could be disguised inside lightweight balloons fired along with a number of identical, empty vessels, or wrapped in a shroud cooled to an ultra-low temperature by liquid nitrogen to baffle infrared sensors designed to locate the heat from a warhead.
One of NMD’s most persistent critics, Theodore Postol, a professor of technology at MIT, claimed that to deploy a system before it is proven to work against the type of countermeasures it is likely to face undermines the credibility of the entire project.
It is fair to say that so far, despite some success in testing the ‘kill’ capabilities of its system, the US missile defence programme has tied itself up in knots over the issue of countermeasures. Director of the Missile Defence Agency (MDA) General Ronald Kadish faced a grilling on the subject when he appeared before the House of Representatives last year. He admitted that ‘countermeasures are always a problem for military systems’ and that missile defence posed ‘particular problems’. He insisted, however, that the MDA was on top of the issue.
Kadish said that as NMD evolves from its modest beginnings it would become a ‘layered defence system that takes multiple shots at our adversary in each of the phases that the missile has to pass through’. Sceptical representatives, however, said that this sounded more like the hugely ambitious and expensive system mooted by Reagan than the limited defence proposed by Bush.
The MDA has also faced repeated criticism of the validity of its testing process, including allegations that serious failures in NMD’s ability to deal with countermeasures have been systematically covered up. Even the strongest proponents of NMD agree that countermeasures go to the heart of the system’s credibility. If it cannot distinguish a real threat from a decoy, or can be overwhelmed by enemy systems, it becomes a multibillion-dollar white elephant.
Vic Pheasant, an executive consultant for UK countermeasures specialist Chemring and a veteran of the industry, was unequivocal that no defence system could claim to be foolproof. ‘If people say a system is totally invulnerable, then that is generally wrong,’ he said. ‘We have usually demonstrated that you can find a weak link.’
Countermeasures, explained Pheasant, is a ‘game of cat and mouse’ with the balance of power between offence and defence shifting every few years. He gives the example of the perennial battle between those using radar systems and those attempting to jam them. ‘The scales tip every so often, and at the moment the jammers probably have the upper hand. It’s a game that’s being played out all the time.’
A crumb of comfort may be that the nations regarded as the biggest threat are unlikely to possess sophisticated countermeasures capability. Pheasant adds: ‘Just because something can be countered isn’t necessarily a reason for not building it.’
One of Pheasant’s insights into the nature of countermeasures development may have important implications for NMD. During the Cold War, he points out, NATO and the Soviet bloc both invested considerable energies into developing technologies to counter each other’s systems. ‘Naturally the Western countermeasures were based on tests carried out with their own missile systems. The Soviet Union did the same.’
When the Cold War ended and both sides got a chance to look at the other’s technology ‘we all realised we’d been going in pretty much the wrong direction,’ said Pheasant.
The engineers who work on parallel countermeasures programmes – so-called ‘red teams’ – tend to be drawn from the same pool of expertise as those developing the weapons systems themselves, he said. ‘The real challenge is to extend your thinking to what you don’t know, not just what you are familiar with.’
If missile defence becomes established as a long-term component of the US defence programme, the work of those charged with keeping Son of Star Wars one step ahead of those who seek to disable it will be as important as making the system itself work.
Which raises an intriguing possibility. If NMD is a success it is hard to imagine established nuclear powers such as China and Russia standing by to watch their arsenals become obsolete. Once their best brains are applied to the countermeasures question, their technology will become the subject of the same US fears of ‘seepage’ to rogue states as the missile delivery systems that prompted NMD in the first place.
The arms race may well be over. Now book your seats for the countermeasures race.
Sidebar:Crucial elements of the technology are untested or unavailable
Despite George Bush’s recent decision to deploy a modest missile defence capability by the end of 2004, crucial elements of the technology needed for even the most rudimentary system are not yet available.
Bush announced in December that a network of 10 ground-based interceptors would be deployed in Alaska and California by late 2004, with a further 10 to be added in 2005 as well as 20 on three Aegis ships. But key elements of the system have yet to be developed.
A workable booster system has not yet been built, following problems with Boeing’s off-the-shelf technology. The interceptor, consisting of a booster and exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) has failed in three out of its eight flight tests. The EKV is supposed to separate from the booster after launch, then destroy the target warhead by crashing into it head-on. The task is hugely problematic and has been likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet.
The most recent test over the Pacific in December failed when the EKV failed to separate from its booster rocket. A similar separation failure occurred during testing in July 2000.
As a result of these problems, Boeing, the prime contractor for the ground-based element of the programme, will now decide between two new booster systems being designed by Orbital Sciences and Lockheed Martin. The first of these is likely to be tested as part of the interceptor trials this autumn. So concerned is the Missile Defence Agency with its booster problems that it has decided to cancel two intercept tests planned for early this year until the new system is available.
Although the agency is vague about what level of protection NMD will eventually provide, the system is supposed to evolve through three levels of capability. Most of the detail is classified but according to the Federation of American Scientists it is thought that the ultimate ‘objective level’ system would shield against an attack of 20 single-warheaded missiles, each with as many as five credible decoys.
The minimum defensive requirement is the ability to see off an attack of five single-war-headed missiles each carrying unsophisticated decoys. For this level of protection the NMD Joint Project Office said in 1999 that a total of 100 ground-based interceptors would be needed, many more than are now planned for the first deployment in 2005.
To detect and track missiles from launch, the NMD system will initially rely on existing geosynchronous satellites, as infrared sensors being developed independently by the US Air Force will not be ready until later in the decade. These sensors, the Space-Based Infrared System, will be needed to perform the technically difficult task of discriminating between decoys and the warheads themselves. They are being designed to provide the earliest possible warning of an incoming missile, and to predict its trajectory for the NMD control centre.
Meanwhile the UK has agreed to a US request to upgrade the early warning system at RAF Fylingdales on the east coast by 2005.
The US will meet the cost of upgrading the software of the radar, to allow it to perform its new expanded role in detecting any missiles launched from the Middle East.
But the X-band radar to be used with the interceptors will not be available by 2005, meaning the system will rely on upgraded sensors such as the sea-based Aegis and the Cobra Dane intelligence radar in Shemya, Alaska, which was built in the 1970s.
When developed, the X-band radar will perform tracking, discrimination and kill assessments of incoming ballistic missiles. The radars will use high frequency and advanced radar signal processing technology to improve resolution, allowing them to discriminate more accurately between closely spaced objects.
The NMD system is designed to provide a three-pronged defence, with Boeing’s ground-based midcourse interceptors stopping intercontinental ballistic missiles, Raytheon’s ship-based missiles targeting short and medium range warheads, and Patriot Advanced Capability 3 missiles used against tactical missiles.
As well as the ground-based and sea-based interceptors, it is planned that the complete missile defence system will eventually include an airborne high-power chemical laser, which will be installed onto a modified 747-400 cruiser. The airborne laser is to be installed into an aircraft over the next 18 months, and is not likely to undertake its first tests to shoot down a ballistic missile until December 2004.
Sidebar: ‘If the UK were part of the defences we would have to be neutralised’
Any thought that UK involvement in the missile defence programme will leave the nation nestling under a US-built protective umbrella belongs in the realm of science fiction, according to most commentators.
By agreeing to the upgrade of Fylingdales the UK will be buying a share of any future benefits from the limited NMD planned by the Bush administration.
Michael Clarke, professor of defence studies at King’s College, London, said these are likely to come in the form of intelligence, and possibly some protection for UK forces overseas.
‘The possibility of the UK mainland being protected is just not a realistic one,’ said Clarke. ‘We would be buying a share of the information the system provides, and maybe some benefits for our troops operating in particular theatres.’
Clarke said the concept of an over-arching shield above the UK, or for that matter the US, is a legacy of the ambitions of Ronald Reagan that has lodged in the collective consciousness.
‘Given enough time and resources, all the bits of such a system could probably be made to work. But could they be scaled up 100 or more times to the level that would be needed? It’s just not realistic.’
But while Clarke can envisage some benefits to the UK, at least in political and intelligence terms, many MPs are concerned that the presence of Fylingdales as a link in the NMD chain could actually increase the chance of attack.
Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat spokesman for Wales and Northern Ireland, said the country faced the prospect of increasing its exposure. ‘There is very little upside if we were to allow the US to use us as a tracking or launch station, because it simply makes us a target. In that situation we become the shield, and that also means we could be hurt by an aggressor’s sword, when the sword is really meant for the US. If the UK were part of the defences we would have to be neutralised.’
Opik added: ‘The reality is that the biggest threat these days is terrorism, and a missile defence system will not deter a terrorist.’