A secrecy problem -- again

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A secrecy problem -- again

June 17, 2002

The Bush administration is determined to push ahead with a missile defense system, and now it is proposing to do so without a whole lot of scrutiny from Congress, the press, the program's skeptics and even from within the Pentagon. The administration has decided to classify much of what was previously public about tests of missiles, such as the schedules and the types of targets and decoys used.

And it has decided not to provide Congress with detailed cost estimates or production and deployment schedules. The concern is not that the technology will fall into enemy hands. We've already said we'll share with the Russians, and at $70 billion to deploy the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System, no other country is going to build one. The worry is, says the Defense Department, that information about how the interceptors distinguish between real warheads and decoys could help an attacker evade the system. (The easiest way to evade the system is to overwhelm it, which Russia and maybe China could do, but the administration worries about a limited attack from a rogue state.) It is a legitimate worry.

However, Philip Coyle III, who as an assistant secretary of defense evaluated missile tests in the Clinton administration, argues, ". . . the fact is that this program is not at the point where the types of decoys being used have even begun to be representative of the likely enemy countermeasures against missile defense." He estimates it will take another 20 or so tests, at about $100 million per, and the end of the decade "before testing with 'real world' decoys can begin."

Also puzzling is the administration's decision to sidestep established Pentagon procedures. Coyle says information about the tests is being withheld from the department's independent review panels, like the office of Operational Test and Evaluation, and testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee revealed that the four uniformed service chiefs had not been consulted about the Pentagon's fiscal 2003 missile defense budget.

The public is not interested in the minutiae of missile defense; it wants to know only one thing: Does the planned system work or doesn't it? On that score, the testing so far has been mixed. In highly structured, scripted tests with balloons as decoys, the Midcourse system is 4-for-6, and questions have been raised about the validity of some of those intercepts. And, as the V-22 Osprey showed, officials dedicated to a certain defense program are not above doctoring the test results.

Nonetheless, the administration is going ahead with ground-breaking in Alaska for a six-silo "test bed" that also could serve as the first step in a deployment. If the public is going to shell out $70 billion, and perhaps an eventual $200 billion, for missile defense, it should be confident it will be safe behind that shield. This secrecy hardly inspires that confidence.

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), June 21, 2002

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