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Missile Defense: Imperative or Unworkable?

Saturn's launch, the early days of America's missile program (Photo: U.S. Space and Rocket Center)

Faith in technology and huge investments in the military have helped America become the world's sole superpower. Its military can control the skies, the seas, and flex its military muscle almost anywhere in the world. Yet it can do little to anticipate or prevent attacks on its soft, civilian underbelly by determined and suicidal enemies.

The attacks of September 11th have added fuel to an old and contentious debate about National Missile Defense. When President Bush advocates revolutionizing the military with new technology, the dream of building an umbrella of protection against missile attack is part of his vision. He argues, if September 11th demonstrated the horror that a small group of men armed only with discipline and box cutters can inflict on the nation, imagine what they could do with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

"Suppose the Taliban and the terrorists had been able to strike America or important allies with a ballistic missile, our coalition would have become fragile, the stakes in our war, much, much higher. We must protect Americans and our friends from all forms of terror, including terror that could arrive on a missile," President Bush said, speaking at the Citadel.

National Missile Defense is an old dream that has divided politicians, challenged scientists, and already cost the nation $100 billion over the past two decades. Still, it's not clear if it can ever work.

To understand the complex web of military, political, and corporate support that has kept this dream alive for so long, you need to visit Huntsville, Alabama: "Rocket City."

Al Whitaker is PR Director at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. This town was once a sleepy cotton town, until a team of German scientists headed by Vernher Von Braun joined the Army's Redstone Arsenal. In World War II Germany, Von Braun built Hitler's V2 rocket that terrorized London. In post-war Huntsville he designed America's first ballistic missile, its first satellite, and the rocket that carried astronauts to the moon. This museum pays homage to Von Braun and defines Huntsville's skyline with a huge Saturn-5 rocket that rises like a church steeple atop a town that embraces rocketry with religious reverence.

Huntsville's growth from agricultural backwater to hi-tech center is fueled in large part by some 900 federal contracts for missile defense. They're worth half a billion dollars a year to companies like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, TRW, and Raytheon, generating thousands of jobs and enthusiastic political support.

Huntsville, Alabama, central to the debate on a National Missile Defense Shield

A recent Chamber of Commerce luncheon is a portrait-in-miniature of the military industrial complex. All the players are here: the military, the business community, and the politicians. Mayor Loretta Spencer, who's part of a tight network of political support for National Missile Defense illustrates how tight the network is. "Our Congressman is from here. I taught his little sister when I first got out of college, so I've known him forever. Our senior senator, Senator Shelby - I went to college with, so we feel like we could not be more blessed. All three, our two senior senators and our congressman are very much on board with us, here in North Alabama because we feel like that is the one assurance we have for protection of this country," she says.

Joe Fitzgerald is a defense consultant and a member of something called the National Missile
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Defense Working Group, which represents business, military, and city officials from Northern Alabama. He says he's proud that this community is unified on the issue of missile defense, "It's one with the Army, it's one with the Department of Defense. It's a very supportive and patriotic community. This is a town that has its roots in the security of the nation," he says.

In a video produced by Fitzgerald's group, a husband frets about a possible missile attack, asking his wife, "Have you seen all the news about some of those Third World countries? There must be half a dozen countries all threatening to fire missiles at us." Then, the unthinkable happens. A recorded voice booms that "this is not a test." The husband screams, "It's all over!"

Fitzgerald says his video illustrates two points. First, that the U.S. does not have a missile defense shield, and second that the technology exists today to build one. He says, "It begs the question, 'why don't we?'"

Critics say there are several reasons. Its $100 billion price tag is one. Concern that it could ignite an arms race is another, and then there's the big question, can it ever work? Ted Postol of MIT has long argued it cannot.

Kennedy meets with Von Braun

The military has successfully shot down missiles in tests over the Pacific, but Postol says nations that can produce intercontinental ballistic missiles could also deploy multiple decoy warheads to make it virtually impossible to track and knock out the real warhead. "So it's incumbent on the people who claim that this is straightforward to explain how they are going to tell the difference between these extraordinarily simple decoys and warheads, " he says. "These are fundamental problems."

Retired Major General Al Sullivan has occupied two mutually supporting roles in this debate: he used to head to the Army's Aviation and Missile Command here in Huntsville. He says that critics shouldn't prejudge, and that technology could be developed. Now he's a Vice President at Colsa Corporation, one of Huntsville's and the country's largest missile defense contractors. He says that after September 11th it's even more imperative to build a system to protect America. "We don't need the Sears Tower coming down because of a missile threat," he says.

Advocates say once deployed, the system could always be tweaked to meet more advanced threats. Ted Postol argues that you can't refine a plan that is so fundamentally flawed. "In fact, what they are doing is building a system that has no chance of working and then saying, we're going to refine its capabilities," he says.

Next: Priorities: Missile Defense or Loose Nukes?