Missile Weapons: The Technology, the Defense

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We get a primer on missile defense technology, and talk about what systems the United States and other countries have to defend against enemy missiles. Victoria Samson, research analyst at the Center for Defense Information in San Antonio, Texas, joins us.



Later in the hour, the early days of electronics and an anniversary for the Mars Viking mission. But first, one of the enduring images from the First Gulf War was batteries of Patriotic anti-missile missile systems set up in an attempt to shoot down scud missiles fired from Iraq.

Well, this week officials announced that a newer version of the Patriot would be deployed on Japanese soil amid concerns about North Korean missile testing. Israel has installed older Patriot missile batteries in Haifa, hoping to shoot down Hezbollah missiles.

Several countries, though, around the world have missile defense systems and for different reasons and with different degrees of success. Joining me now to help sort out the various technologies is Victoria Samson. She's a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information and she joins me from the studios of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, Texas. Welcome to the program.

Ms. VICTORIA SAMSON (Research Analyst, Center for Defense Information): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: How are you?

Ms. SAMSON: Feeling good today.

FLATOW: Well, what kind of missiles are we going to be deploying, or are the Japanese going to be deploying, can you describe them for us?

Ms. SAMSON: Well, actually, this follows up on an agreement that the United States made with Japan back in December where Japan would buy about a billion dollars worth of missile defense systems from the United States.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SAMSON: They would be a sea-based system, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, and they'd also buy the Patriot. The most advanced version is the Patriot Advanced Capability-3, or the PAC-3. And so what we're seeing deployed this summer in the Kadena Air Force Base will be battalions and batteries for the PAC-3. Initially, they'll be operated by U.S. soldiers, but they're hoping to turn over to Japanese military by next year or so.

FLATOW: And what kind of record of service and success do they have?

Ms. SAMSON: The Patriot has a rather checkered history. During the first Gulf War, it was claimed that they made 100 percent intercept; that is they shot down everything that they tried to. We found out later, after a Congressional investigation, at best maybe 10 percent the Iraqi scuds were shot down. In actuality, probably maybe one or even none.

During the second Gulf War, they were used again. We had the PAC-3. We had earlier versions: the PAC-2 and the Guided Enhanced Missile, the GEM. The U.S. military said that of nine Iraqi missiles that were engaged, they were intercepted, but this is out of 24 that were launched. It's hard to say, initially, what exactly they did.

Also, the Patriot System, while we're not sure exactly how well they did against ballistic missiles, we do know that they are very good at shooting down aircraft and that they shot down a U.S. plane and a British plane, killing one American and two British pilots. So I would be a little leery...

FLATOW: That was by accident.

Ms. SAMSON: Oh, yes, definitely.


Ms. SAMSON: It was by accident. There was some confusion with a Patriot radar. They have what they call ghost tracks where they see images aren't actually there. This is probably because the Patriot radars were put too close together and they overlay each other, causing the confusion in this matter.

But just because of that, they still haven't worked out all the issues of the Patriot's radar. I'd be a little nervous about sending it all over the world, just for aircraft if for no other reason.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. The battery, the latest model Patriot that's going to be installed in Japan, could that knock down a North Korean missile that we keep, you know, or some of those that we keep hearing about?

Ms. SAMSON: The Patriot that we're deploying in Japan, it's designed to shoot down short or medium-range ballistic missiles, missiles for a couple hundred or a thousand miles range. So they could shoot down possibly the shorter-range missiles. But in actuality, North Korea would have to shoot longer-range missiles in order to get to Japan, and the Patriot probably would not be very effective against that type of threat.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Does the U.S. have a standing missile defense system in place right now? We are in the process of building one, are we not?

Ms. SAMSON: We've got what they've called a rudimentary missile defense system in place. There are nine interceptors in the ground in Fort Greely, Alaska, two in Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. But they have a pretty shoddy test record.

They've made five intercepts out of 10 attempts, and these were under highly scripted circumstances where they knew exactly what the missile was going to be doing that they were going to try and shoot down, where it would be flying, how it would look, what kind of radar signature it would give off. It's unlikely that in an actual hostile situation the country of whoever missile they were trying to shoot down would give us that kind of prior information.

FLATOW: So why do we have them deployed if they're not working?

Ms. SAMSON: Well, in December of 2002, President Bush said the United States would have some sort of missile defense system deployed within two years, and so the Missile Defense Agency - the part of the Pentagon that's been charged with the developing a missile defense system - put all systems to go. They were determined. They had been given a presidential mandate to get something in the ground and, by God, they were going to.

So they worked on getting these interceptors in the ground just to meet that, but in the process of doing so, they rushed through a lot of the developmental processes. And they were criticized by the Government Accountability Office in a report earlier on this year for having serious quality control problems. They were so focused on getting something in the ground that they skipped a lot of the enhancement that they needed to get it to where it would actually work.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And we've seen pictures of - from Alaska of a huge radar system being installed. Is that part of that...

Ms. SAMSON: Right, and what they're looking...

FLATOW: ...anti-missile system?

Ms. SAMSON: It's got several elements. It's got the interceptors, the pointy end of the stick, that are in Alaska and California. We're developing a satellite network, which is years behind schedule and way over budget, that is needed in order to track these systems, and we're also putting a radar out.

It's - what we've seen pictures of are is the C-band/X-band Radar, and that's a floating X-band Radar. It's huge. Just picture a huge ball on top of two oil platforms; it reaches 22 stories or so up. And it's supposed to be a homeport of Adak, Alaska. However, it's been having some problems. They built in Texas and they floated it all the way down around the tip of South America because it's too big to go through the Panama Canal.

And it stopped at Hawaii to get some repairs on route, and it was actually supposed to be in place in Alaska by the end of 2005. It's still in Hawaii trying to get everything done, so we don't actually have anything in place that can detect and track missiles in flight. That's what the X-band Radar is supposed to be.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how is the system supposed to work? I know in the old days, we used to - the olds we can talk about - a bullet hitting a bullet. Is that basically still the same idea here?

Ms. SAMSON: Yes, it is. But you have as a bullet hitting a bullet where both items are going 10,000 miles per hour; they're going very quickly. The idea is that an enemy country would launch a missile. Our satellites would detect the launch. They'd be able to relay that information also to the people out in the field and to the command center out in Colorado.

You'd have the C band/X Band Radar tracking the missile and sending information out to the people who'd be manning these interceptors in the ground. And once a decision had been made to actually attempt to shoot down a missile, you'd have an interceptor or two in California or Alaska shooting up to directly hit the ICBM - the intercontinental ballistic missile - in the midcourse of its flight.

The problem with that is we don't really have a chain of command, a firing decision decided for the missile defense system. They haven't worked it out. And also, it hasn't actually been declared operational just because there are so many issues with the technologies that we need to do and the firing decision.

It's got so far to go that they really haven't worked out a lot of the problems yet. So if we were actually placed in a situation where we had to shoot down a missile, I don't think we'd be able to do it with any kind of reliability.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Jason in Westminster, Colorado. Hi, Jason.

JASON (Caller): Hi.


JASON: Am I on the air?

FLATOW: Yes, you are.

JASON: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes, I have a question, a two-part question. Actually, I'm a little confused about why we are sending missiles to Japan when they don't have a military and that it was dismantled after World War II. And since we are going down that road, I saw a thing on the Discovery Channel about a laser system and whether that was going to be implemented any time soon?

Ms. SAMSON: Well, with the first question, Japan doesn't officially have a military, but they've got their self-defense forces, which they're constitutionally allowed to have. And I think they may be getting a little bit more militaristic in the future. So they'd have those forces actually working the missile defense systems once we turn over the reigns of command.

The laser system that you were talking about, they've got - and this is really a great visual idea - the airborne laser, where you have a modified Boeing 747 with lasers in its turret. And the idea is that the laser would shoot out of its nose to try and intercept a ballistic missile during the first part of its flight, during the boost phase.

That - the airborne laser is having a lot of problems. Every year we hear it's going to be cancelled, and every year it clings to life with fingernails just barely there. But it has some problems with the laser itself. It's hard to keep the laser beam on track. It tends to get hit by atmospheric disturbances.

And just in regards to that, they have had trouble getting the laser in the aircraft; it's extremely heavy. And each year they're trying to get it in, and each year they have difficulty. So it'll be awhile, if ever, that they actually get the airborne laser up and flying.

FLATOW: Do you think it is possible to create an anti-ballistic missile system that works?

Ms. SAMSON: I think that the real problem that they have and that they're not dealing with is the issue of countermeasures. That's the idea that any enemy that can launch an ICBM can also launch one that'll have penetration aids that'll make it more difficult for our missiles to discriminate.

They have these things that act like chaff, you know, aluminum foil, things like that, that go around the warhead. And so it makes it very difficult for our missile defense system to track it and to discriminate it and figure out, of all these objects on my screen, which one am I actually supposed to hit?

The Missile Defense Agency has had such a problem with countermeasures that a couple years ago they classified all discussion of countermeasures. They just said, well, we're dealing with it. We're not going to tell you how. And I think that really indicates the level of difficulty that they have in rectifying this problem.

FLATOW: And you're saying that in the testing that they've done, they've just used the simplest - without these countermeasures.

Ms. SAMSON: They've - the - in the early part of the tests, when they were still talking about them, they were using very easy ones where they had very obvious differences between the actual warhead and the balloon that was flying next to it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SAMSON: And originally, the test plan included getting more intricate and challenging countermeasures that reflected real-life threats. But in actuality, they ended up having to go the other way around, where with each additional test, they had to simplify the countermeasures just because they're having such problems with the discrimination.

FLATOW: Hmm. So we're a long way off is what you're saying. I want to thank you for taking time to talk with us, Victoria.

Ms. SAMSON: My pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show.

FLATOW: Victoria Samson is a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information, and she was joining us from Texas Public Radio in San Antonio.

We're going to take a short break. Come back and switch gears and talk about William Shockley. A new book put out by Joel Shurkin talks about the life and times of a very interesting guy. He had his pluses and his minuses, and we'll talk about all of them and take your calls, so don't go away. We'll be right back.

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