WASHINGTON, D.C.--U.S. researchers are stepping up efforts to shoot down a proposed missile defense system. More than three dozen scientists journeyed to the Capitol today to warn lawmakers that the $60 billion system, designed to knock incoming warheads out of the sky, is technically flawed because it can't distinguish real warheads from decoys. The rally came as Pentagon officials heatedly denied one scientist's charges that they have rigged tests to hide the problem.
The national missile defense system is supposed to seek out and destroy intercontinental warheads high above Earth's atmosphere, using high-speed "kill vehicles" to shatter targets with brute force. Current plans call for a limited defense, starting with 20 Alaska-based interceptors by 2005 and reaching 100 in 2007, that could blunt a missile threat from North Korea, Iraq, and other so-called "rogue states." But President Bill Clinton has said he will wait until after a fifth interceptor test next month to decide whether to proceed.
Scientists at today's rally, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, urged Clinton to delay the decision, arguing that the carefully controlled test won't determine if the system will work against real targets. "The [system] is not capable of handling countermeasures," such as hiding a warhead amidst a flotilla of shiny balloons or warhead-shaped dummies, said physicist Kurt Gottfried of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The tests have been "a scientific hoax," adds physicist and nuclear engineer Theodore Postol of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After analyzing data from a 1997 test flight, Postol concluded that Pentagon engineers ignored evidence that their sensors couldn't recognize a decoy, then rigged future tests by reducing the number of the dummies.
Pentagon officials admit simplifying some tests to speed development, but "categorically deny that we're fixing the flights," Jacques Gansler, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, told reporters. New sensors, computers, and radars not analyzed by Postol, other officials say, will ensure that the kill vehicles hit their targets. But the technical dispute is undermining political support for the program, which is already facing international opposition. If the system can't tell "a phony [missile] from a real one," says the Senate's top Democrat, South Dakota's Tom Daschle, "I don't know that we're ready to commit resources."