The rigged missile defense test

The target destroyed in the "successful" defense shield test contained a global positioning satellite beacon that made it easier to detect. Why has the media mostly ignored the story?

Published July 31, 2001 8:41PM (EDT)

The Pentagon and the Bush administration are determined to sell the American people a national missile defense system that will probably increase tensions with allies and adversaries and will surely cost more than $100 billion. Their latest marketing exercise took place on the evening of July 14, when a "kill vehicle" launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific smashed into a rocket sent up from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Precisely according to plan, the target was instantly vaporized on impact -- and along with it, or so the Pentagon's uniformed salesmen hoped, the perennial concern that missile defense won't work. With the cooperation of major news organizations and conservative pundits, that test provided an enormous propaganda boost to the Bush proposal, which conveniently enough had been brought up to Capitol Hill by Defense Department officials just two days earlier.

There was only one thing that all the happy salesmen forgot to mention about their latest test drive. The rocket fired from Vandenberg was carrying a global positioning satellite beacon that guided the kill vehicle toward it. In other words, it would be fair to say that the $100 million test was rigged.

No wonder, then, that Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, the Air Force officer who oversees the NMD program, told the Washington Post on the eve of the test that he was "quietly confident" about the outcome. The general knew about the GPS beacon, while the reporters didn't.

This rather significant aspect of the July 14 mission remained hidden in the fine print until a few days ago, when the Pentagon confirmed the role of the GPS device to a reporter for Defense Week magazine. But of course most Americans still don't know why the test functioned so smoothly, because the Defense Week scoop was either buried or ignored by the mainstream media, which had so obediently celebrated the technological breakthrough two weeks earlier.

And as Kadish later acknowledged, each of the previous three tests -- two of which failed anyway -- had also involved the use of a guidance beacon. (To longtime observers of the missile-defense effort, this latest news recalled the notorious "Star Wars" scandal, when investigators discovered that a target had been secretly heated to ensure that it would be picked up by the interceptor's infrared sensor.)

Reuters was among the few news organizations that bothered to cover the Defense Week story. The wire service quoted a Pentagon official who "conceded that real warheads in an attack would not carry such helpful beacons." Probably not, although we can always hope that the Iranians or the North Koreans or the Chinese will attach to each incoming nuke a loudspeaker that screams "come and get me!"

Unfortunately, weapons experts agree that even the most primitive enemy missiles are more likely to carry a very different kind of accessory, namely, decoys designed to fool the computerized sensors aboard the kill vehicle.

While the missile launched from Vandenberg on July 14 did spit out a single Mylar balloon as a symbolic decoy, that scarcely challenged the kill vehicle's capacity to select the correct target -- particularly because there was no GPS beacon on that shiny balloon. In real warfare, an incoming missile is expected to deploy multiple decoys of varying shapes and sizes to lure the kill vehicle astray. Past tests have indicated that these simple fakes work far more reliably than the complex technology designed to detect them.

Eventually, the truth about the inherent problems of national missile defense may emerge in congressional hearings. But meanwhile, the Pentagon and the Bush White House mean to stifle any dissent about the capabilities of their favorite toy. They have repeatedly sought to reclassify documents that show that the system doesn't function as advertised. And within the past few weeks, they have blatantly attempted to intimidate Theodore Postol, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is the country's leading critic of missile defense.

In early July, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Defense Department officials asked MIT to confiscate the reclassified report from Postol and to "investigate [his] actions." At first MIT president Charles Vest, no doubt worried about millions of dollars in defense research grants to his university, moved to comply with that request. Only when Postol protested publicly did MIT back down.

Bogus tests and bullied critics are the hallmarks of a defense establishment that fears facts. With billions in contracts at stake and bellicose ideologues in power, the salesmen for national missile defense must conceal the many defects in their dangerous product. And the press corps, reverting to the bad habits of the Cold War, has done little so far to penetrate the Pentagon's propaganda.

So when the next "successful" missile-defense test is announced with fanfare and fireworks, don't necessarily believe what you hear. You are the buyers targeted by this massive sales effort -- and you should most certainly beware.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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