Series Overview: The Future Of U.S. Missile Defense

Missile launched from Aegis cruiser i i

A missile is launched from the Aegis cruiser USS Shiloh during a test June 22, 2006. U.S. Missile Defense Agency hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Missile Defense Agency
Missile launched from Aegis cruiser

A missile is launched from the Aegis cruiser USS Shiloh during a test June 22, 2006.

U.S. Missile Defense Agency
Ground-based Midcourse Defense System i i

A Ground-Based Midcourse Defense booster rocket like this one is designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles. U.S. Missile Defense Agency hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Missile Defense Agency
Ground-based Midcourse Defense System

A Ground-Based Midcourse Defense booster rocket like this one is designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles.

U.S. Missile Defense Agency

Since 2002, the Bush administration has spent more than $60 billion deploying a new defense program that has received little attention — the anti-missile defense system.

Active missile interceptors are now in silos in the ground in Alaska and California and in a permanent state of readiness. A growing number of U.S. warships are equipped with missile interceptors and have been deployed to potential trouble spots around the globe. And the U.S. has built a new set of high-tech radar stations, capped by a billion dollar floating radar station that can be moved anywhere in the world, to provide crucial early warning and tracking data for the whole system.

Now U.S. missile defense is set to go global, with the involvement of both European and Asian allies. Yet critics say much of this system will not work in the event of an actual attack.

All of this has taken place quietly over the past six years, with scant coverage by the news media. Missile defense may be one of the most important, yet least examined issues of the Bush administration.

This five-part series seeks to probe the complex issues raised by missile defense.

Part One examines just how serious the danger is from the proliferation of ballistic missile technology around the world. Proponents of missile defense argue that more and more nations are acquiring missile capability, making it imperative that the United States build the defenses necessary to protect American soil.

Critics say most of those nations with missile capabilities are friends of the United States. Those few hostile states, such as North Korea or Iran, that may seek to acquire missiles that could reach the U.S. would be committing national suicide should their leaders decide to launch rockets, possibly with nuclear weapons, against the U.S. Thus, say the critics, deterrence is a cheaper and more reliable defense.

In Part Two, the centerpiece of the missile defense system — the ground-based interceptor — comes into focus with a trip to Fort Greely, Alaska, the primary site for the deployment of these missiles. Fourteen interceptors are already operational there, with 40 to be installed by 2010.

The question, though, is whether these interceptors can overcome the use of decoys by attacking missiles, which is at the heart of the debate over whether missile defense at this level actually works. To overcome this problem, the U.S. has built an extraordinary radar system — the floating sea-based X-band radar — to provide key tracking and targeting data for the system.

The U.S. has also deployed missile interceptors at sea. America's Aegis cruisers and destroyers are being modified to combat short and medium range missiles, like the ones Saddam Hussein used against Saudi Arabia and Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. Progress has been steady in this field, including a successful missile intercept from the USS Lake Erie last spring in the waters off Hawaii — witnessed by NPR. Part Three explores the sea-based component of U.S. missile defenses.

Last year, the Bush administration decided it needed to expand this system globally, especially to Europe, which is the focus of Part Four. The expansion of the system has proven highly controversial. The governments of both the Czech Republic and Poland have signed agreements with the U.S. to install radar and missile interceptors. But Russia has objected strongly — and Russia's recent invasion of Georgia has only made its objections more of a concern. The Bush administration says expansion to Europe will counter the potential missile threat from Iran, but Moscow believes eventually it will be used to try to neutralize Russia's arsenal of nuclear missiles.

This is the state of missile defenses now, but the Pentagon has plans for additional weapons to be developed in the years to come. Among them are an airborne laser that could use concentrated laser energy to destroy hostile missiles as they are launched, interceptor missiles that could deploy multiple kill vehicles designed to knock out a fleet of attacking missiles, and a superfast interceptor that also might destroy a hostile missile soon after launch. The future of missile defense is the subject of Part Five in the series.

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