"Way to distort the truth!"

Readers blast Joe Conason on the missile defense test, and Conason fires back.

Published August 3, 2001 6:35PM (EDT)

Read the story.

Joe Conason writes: "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?"

Perhaps because it knows more than he does about the missile test.

Point 1: The GPS beacon was used to generate the initial missile launch track. This would in a normal situation be developed by ground- and space-based radar, but that portion of the system hasn't been built yet.

In other words, the GPS data was used to create a simulation of the normal data the missile system would use in a real attack. This is perfectly normal, and in no way affects the integrity of the test.

Point 2: The kill vehicle couldn't have received the signal; the targeting system uses IR and radar, not GPS frequencies.

Point 3: Even if the kill vehicle did receive the signal, the data it would be receiving wouldn't be sufficient to target the test missile.

Point 4: Without a GPS beacon onboard the test missile, how would the ground controllers be able to track it for the test? Suppose the kill vehicle misses -- how do the ground controllers determine how much it missed by without knowing the precise location of both missiles?

Love the fact checking, guys. Are you this rigorous with every article?

-- Matt Beland

Hey, way to distort the truth.

If you had read what the Department of Defense had to say earlier, then you know full well that the beacon was there to make up for the lack of the new long-range radars that will be required (and haven't been built yet). The beacon functioned to help orient the missile in the correct direction. The actual intercept and kill was conducted solely by the kill vehicle's onboard sensors.

The presence of the beacon in no way rendered the test invalid, but there you go twisting and distorting the truth for political ends. Sad ...

-- John Powell

I have read some accounts of the issue that offer a reasonable explanation for the beacon. Evidently the beacon was necessary because the missile was being launched from the United States. The extensive early detection radar we employ to spot incoming missiles cannot see missiles launched in our own territory (makes sense). Also, since we are not concerned with defending the area of the test itself we do not have early detection radar that covers this area either.

-- Bob Robinson

Joe Conason replies:

When questioned about the July 14 test by Defense Week and Reuters, Pentagon officials reluctantly acknowledged that a real warfare scenario would rely solely upon radar tracking rather than the helpful GPS beacon. That could be why they didn't mention the beacon during the triumphant press conference held immediately after the test.

And that is certainly why Defense Week led its current issue with a story about the beacon's role in the July 14 test. The news was that the beacon had not just been used to orient the NMD interceptor in early stages, but had actually directed it toward the "enemy" warhead.

The Defense Week article revealed that "a prototype interceptor was able to find a target warhead partly because the target signaled its location to the interceptor for much of the flight and the transmission formed the basis of the targeting orders, according to officials and documents."

The correspondent's use of "warhead" in that damning sentence indicates that the beacon was used to find the target in the reentry phase -- and not merely in the early stages after the missile was launched. That's why the beacon and other unrealistic features raise serious questions about the significance of the July 14 exercise and the three that preceded it.

This isn't really a matter of opinion. Five days after the test, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Philip Coyle, who directed testing evaluation for the Pentagon for the past several years, testified about the latest mission and the overall progress of NMD. With more than 40 years of experience behind him, Coyle is the outstanding authority on defense system testing in the United States.

His Senate testimony repeatedly pointed out that the GPS beacon is one of several aspects of the latest test that weren't "operationally representative" of real warfare conditions. Although he said that the beacon's use was "justified by gaps in radar coverage," he emphasized that "this practice should be phased out" sooner rather than later.

Owing to this and other severe flaws in the NMD development regime, Coyle told the Senate that "the early test results to date, including the latest flight intercept test last Saturday, do not yet justify a Bush administration decision to deploy an operational system in Alaska." He also said bluntly that the missile-deflecting umbrella envisioned in Pentagon briefings to promote NMD "is a practical impossibility."

Of course, his testimony received far less attention than the sexy flight test.

My point was that both the Pentagon's propaganda and the media coverage wrongly celebrated the July 14 shoot-down without explaining how distant from reality the conditions of that test were -- in order to advance the political aims of the White House.

By Salon Staff

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