RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Off the coast of Hawaii yesterday, a Navy warship shot a missile out of the sky. NPR's Mike Shuster was there to watch this test of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system. It's part of the overall national missile defense capability that the Bush Administration has spent billions of dollars to deploy. The target was not the kind of missile that would likely carry a nuclear warhead. Instead this missile would be an enemy missile carrying chemical or biological weapons that could be used in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula against cities or troop concentrations. Mike reports from aboard the U.S.S. Lake Erie.
MIKE SHUSTER: It was a glorious, fresh morning in the Pacific, about 50 miles from the coast of Kauai. The sun was brilliant, the sea a sparkling deep blue. Shortly after 8:00 an alert crackled through the Lake Erie and its more than 300 sailors.
(Soundbite of radio alert)
Unidentified Man #1: Fireball, fireball, fireball, track 7255, track ballistic, (unintelligible), launch point, impact point received.
SHUSTER: Fireball, the code word for a hostile missile launch. The Lake Erie was assigned a watch sector in the Pacific, and a missile was launched from it, in this case a target missile coming off a mobile launch platform about 300 miles away. The Lake Erie now had about four minutes to track it and train its own missiles on the incoming rocket. On the ship's bridge, a palpable tension as the assembled officers and seamen keep their eyes on the forward deck, where the missiles are kept in cells below deck. That's where the ship's missiles will launch.
(Soundbite of radio)
Unidentified Man #1: ...launching now, nine, eight, seven, six...
(Soundbite of missiles launching)
SHUSTER: Two missiles away amidst a burst of orange flame that covers the bridges window for an instant. The sailors crowd toward the port side of the ship.
Unidentified Man #2: There they go. Beautiful. Beautiful.
SHUSTER: Two minutes later, the Lake Erie's missiles engaged the target missile, which is speeding at several thousand miles an hour after it's traveled into space and then re-entered the atmosphere. Lieutenant Commander Andrew Bates, the officer of the day, says the shot is right on the mark.
Lieutenant Commander ANDREW BATES (U.S. Navy): We could see an explosion around the first missile that was launched. At the same time that I visually saw the explosion, I heard over the internal nets, the missile system supervisor say mark (unintelligible) so mark intercept.
SHUSTER: It took a few minutes for the vast array of sensors and computers and satellites and specialists to confirm that in fact the test had been a success. The Lake Erie's captain, Ron Boxall, was delighted.
Captain RON BOXALL (U.S. Navy): I'm suffering from post-shot euphoria. You know, we plan for so many different contingencies. You can see how overly conservative we are in our planning, because it went off without a hitch. We kind of learn to expect things to go wrong, and when they don't, it doesn't seem normal.
SHUSTER: It seems that things are tending to go right with the component of missile defense that's based at sea on Aegis cruisers like the Lake Erie. The Aegis system has carried out test intercepts against intermediate-range missiles, destroying them in space, and now shorter-range missiles, knocking them out when they re-enter the atmosphere. The Lake Erie also used its missiles in February to shoot down a crippled U.S. spy satellite that was threatening to fall out of orbit. Yesterday's launch was meant to demonstrate the system's ability to protect the U.S. or others from short to medium-range missile attack, explains Stanley Williams, the Pentagon's top civilian aboard the Lake Erie.
Mr. STANLEY WILLIAMS: Somewhat like the Scuds from Desert Shield/Desert Storm, that we can engage and protect a friendly neighbor, whether we are in the Gulf or in the Sea of Japan or elsewhere in the world.
SHUSTER: In fact, the Pentagon later described the target missile that was shot down as a Scud-like object. The Aegis cruiser has become an increasingly important part of the Navy's inventory of ships. It was first produced in the 1970s and was originally equipped with a lot of high tech sensing equipment, including the phased array radar. Over the past 15 years the radar has become even more sophisticated and computer technology has integrated the information from the ship's radar and from satellites with an array of guided missiles. Only after President Bush took office did the Pentagon decide to see whether the Aegis system could be modified to include ballistic missile intercepts.
Now it looks like the Pentagon is moving quickly to outfit some 18 Aegis cruisers and destroyers with missile interceptors and the necessary technology to operate them. Some may be ready by October, the rest over the next 20 months, said Rear Admiral Brad Hicks in a Pentagon conference call after yesterday's test.
Rear Admiral BRAD HICKS (U.S. Navy): The beauty and the criticality of this test is it allows you to add to our defense in depth. It allows us to kill in space and in the atmosphere from a single platform, being the Aegis warship in this case.
SHUSTER: The ability of the U.S. to intercept long range intercontinental ballistic missiles which could carry nuclear warheads has had its problems though. The U.S. has now deployed a small number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and in California, but so far their test record has been less successful.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, aboard the U.S.S. Lake Erie off Hawaii.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.