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The Huntsville Times October 27, 2004

Army waits for Bush to deploy missile defense

Expert speculates delay caused by fear of failure, politics

By Shelby G. Spires

At the press of a button, Army Maj. Gen. John Holly can look down on Fort Greely in Alaska through a fiber-optic-linked camera and a large, flat-screen, color monitor mounted on his office wall in Huntsville.

Holly is in charge of developing the nation's first line of defense against ICBMs, and he likes to see what's going on at the Greely outpost - home to the first five missile silos of the Missile Defense Agency's ground-based missile defense system, developed by Boeing Co. in Huntsville.

Critics of missile defense are puzzled there has been no ribbon-cutting at Fort Greely because the Bush administration promised the system would be ready to defend the country Oct. 1.

The government hopes the missiles will prevent a thermonuclear war - one that could be set off by North Korea or Iran, two of the Pentagon's prime suspects for developing or possessing nuclear weapons and the technology to shoot them across continents.

Missile defense is a tough problem. The interceptors require a complex network of radar and other sensors strung across the globe from Huntsville to Colorado to California, to Alaska to Navy ships plowing through the Pacific Ocean.

At Greely, five missiles, each tipped with a "kill vehicle," wait for the launch order that would hurl them into incoming nuclear-armed missiles speeding at 20,000 mph.

The equipment has been ready to be turned on for almost a month, Holly said, after about five years of steady work on the ground-based missile defense system and more than 40 years of development.

Holly said a decision could be made on deploying the missile shield before the end of the year. Until then, his people continue to work on instructions and protocols for how the system would be used.

"We have brought the system up to a launch-ready state, and then we brought it back down into a developmental condition," he said. "The men and women of this program delivered on the promise made by the internal schedules. It was an internal schedule, not an external one. We set a date. It was an aggressive date."

Holly said the system will continue to grow as more missile fields are prepared and interceptors go in the ground.

The indecision has puzzled many defense watchdogs. GlobalSecurity.org's John Pike, who has spent two decades - "about half my life" - looking at missile defense, is bewildered as to why there was a large buildup by the Bush administration toward Oct. 1, but then nothing after Sept. 30.

"I'm kind of confused to what is going on," Pike said. "The theory was that there would be a ceremony, a ribbon-cutting and perhaps a building would be named for (late President Ronald) Reagan, but nobody held much stock that the system would actually work.

"The Pentagon claims it is ready for use, but my guess is that this is all wrapped up in politics now," Pike said. "The Bush White House has some reason for not going ahead with it."

U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, is confident the missile defense system is ready to go and also figures the White House has some reason for delaying its deployment.

"I don't know why (Bush administration officials) are waiting on this, other than maybe wanting to wait until after the election," Cramer said. "I feel certain it's going to be deployed soon."

There are detractors in Congress and those who believe the system is untested, but Cramer said that's not the majority voice in Washington.

"I don't see missile defense as much of an issue" on Capitol Hill, Cramer said last week. "That's a battle we have won, and I think most members (of Congress) see the need for missile defense and its related research."

Over the past eight years, the Pentagon has spent about $10 billion to develop the ground-based segment of missile defense and plans to spend more than $3 billion a year for the next five years improving the missile shield in phases.

Fort Greely sprung out of the frozen Alaska tundra over the past two years through millions of dollars and round-the-clock construction.

Pike said the Pentagon spends "about the equivalent of an aircraft carrier each year, but what do they have to show for it, and will it work?"

The missile defense cost doesn't translate into useable hardware in Pike's mind, either.

Many compare the missile defense costs - about $80 billion since 1985, including the ground-based portion - with those for such programs as the Apollo moon landings and the Manhattan atomic bomb project. Both were crash programs that developed new technologies and left America with high-tech research centers that lasted longer than the original projects.

Missile defense isn't going to be that way, Pike said.

"It's certainly on the scale of the Apollo program in terms of costs, and it is probably five or six times the cost of the Manhattan Project," he said. "But the government has been working on it for two decades and doesn't have very much to show for it.

"Within four years of the Manhattan Project, we had bombed Hiroshima, and within eight years of Kennedy's commitment to go to the moon, astronauts were on the lunar surface," he said.

"Here we are, 20 years later, and it is amazing to me they have been able to eat up an Apollo program's worth of money and have nothing to show for it," Pike said.

To Holly and others within the Department of Defense, there are many things to show for the money.

There are 20,000 miles of fiber-optic cables laid down for the ground-based missile defense program that link half the globe. Fort Greely's missile defense buildings were built around the clock, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed building techniques to bring the Army post online in the missile defense system.

"The normal construction season there is five months at the most, but we worked year-round by doing things like heating the ground and building temporary shelters over the construction sites," Holly said.

Special labs in Huntsville test and develop missile defense hardware. Huntsville will play a significant part in the continued building of the ground-based missile defense system, Holly said.

"Right now, between the government and contractors, we have about 3,800 people in Huntsville that work on this program," Holly said.

What that means economically for the city: "Roughly speaking, we spend $2 million every day, 365 days a year in the local community," Holly said.

Another ground-based missile defense flight test is planned before the end of the year, he said.

"The flight tests are meant to validate what we do with our simulation," he said. "The true tests of the systems aren't always in the flight tests. ?They just receive a lot of attention."


Copyright 2004, The Huntsville Times