Get Ready, Here Comes the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle

The New York Times Magazine
September 26, 1999

Dale Reis and Jerry Lockard lead the way into a land of secrets. Reis punches in a code and a locked door clicks open with the metallic sound of a bullet clip sliding into place. They enter an arena of cubicles that would resemble any office in Dilbert’s America were it not for some of the filing cabinets; secured with the type of combination locks affixed to safes, the cabinets are encased in metal bars and fastened with heavy-duty padlocks.

This is a missile factory, one of the largest in the country, a high-security complex of 80 buildings on 1,400 acres of land with 8,500 men and women who work for Raytheon Missiles Systems to design and produce armaments whose names hint at the nonpassive nature of their business — Tomahawk, Stinger, Javelin, RAM, Maverick, HARM.

The factory, on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz., has the tidy feel of a manufacturing facility anywhere in the country. A placard at its entrance keeps count of the number of days that have gone by without an employee missing work because of an injury or accident — 52 the day I visit — and its sprawling parking lots are filled with minivans and family sedans with baby seats.

Reis and Lockard are the top executives at this complex and have worked in the defense business their entire professional lives. Now they spend much of their time on the road, in Washington or selling their wares in foreign countries. Their uniform this day is casual — sports shirts and jackets, no ties. Keeping a brisk pace, we leave the office building, cross a tarmac under a blazing Arizona sun and enter another nondescript building where the double-time march leaves little opportunity to observe anything but the signs on the doors: “Special Access,” “Top Secret” and “Wargaming Lab — Secure Facility.” After we enter a final set of double doors, a red light flashes on the wall, and as a security official slides to my side, a loudspeaker informs everyone that an unclassified visitor is present.

The reason for the fuss is simple: within this laboratory, Raytheon’s top ballistic technicians are putting the final touches on a weapon that is supposed to protect America from Armageddon. The Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle is supposed to fly through space at 4,500 miles an hour and smash into an incoming warhead. The closing velocity of missile and missile-killer would be an amazing four miles per second, and somehow, despite the velocity, despite the vacuum of space, despite the subzero temperatures, despite decoys and evasive maneuvers, the E.K.V. will, if all goes as planned, hit its target’s warhead and obliterate it. This task is akin to hitting the tip of a bullet with another bullet, except that the cost of missing the target by even a fraction of an inch is the loss of a U.S. city under a mushroom cloud, or a cloud of anthrax spores or the smallpox virus.

An E.K.V. costs $20 million to $25 million and, at 120 pounds, is pound for pound among the most expensive weapons ever built. It is also the crown jewel of National Missile Defense, a program that is Topic A for defense hawks in Washington who worry America is unnecessarily vulnerable to missiles tipped with weapons of mass destruction. National Missile Defense is also Topic A for Pentagon critics, as an example of another out-of-control program that has soaked up more than $50 billion in nearly two decades. Most antimissile tests have failed to score intercepts. While that dismal trend is beginning to turn, it makes the E.K.V.’s tryout, scheduled for Sept. 30, when it will soar into space to attempt to destroy a test warhead flying somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, all the more urgent, for both Raytheon and the Pentagon. Because depending on whom you believe right now, the E.K.V. is either a magic bullet for national security or just another pricey misfire from the defense industry.

America is preparing for nuclear war again. In 1983, the goal of defending the country from intercontinental-ballistic-missile attack rose to the top of the political agenda when President Reagan outlined his vision of building a system of space-based lasers to shoot down missiles fired by the Soviet Union. The system became known as Star Wars and was derided by critics who said — accurately, as it turned out — there was no way the Government could build a missile shield that would work. Star Wars drained more than $50 billion before the tap was turned off at the end of the cold war.

Despite the Star Wars distraction, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) — meaning, if you nuke us, we will nuke you — was the backbone of America’s nuclear defense throughout the cold war and remains so today. There is no defensive system that can shoot down an ICBM; there’s only MAD.

In the past year, America’s political and military leadership has concluded that the country can no longer rely on deterrence alone. A limited version of President Reagan’s shield, a Star Wars Lite relying on ground-based interceptors rather than space-based lasers, has moved to the forefront of Pentagon priorities. The National Missile Defense’s budget nearly doubled earlier this year to $10.5 billion until 2005, and President Clinton has agreed to decide next year whether the system will be deployed over strenuous objections from the Russians and Chinese, who also oppose a related program, called Theater Missile Defense, which would be deployed overseas to protect United States troops in battle and, potentially, foreign allies. The Russians and Chinese view the programs as politically destabilizing; China is particularly worried about a U.S. antimissile umbrella covering Taiwan. Domestic critics, meanwhile, insist National Missile Defense will be no different from Star Wars. “The names have been changed to protect the guilty,” says John Pike, a senior analyst with the liberal research group the Federation of American Scientists.

The notion of a renewed nuclear menace may seem odd, with the cold war long over and America able to turn almost any hostile country into a smart-bomb target range. What’s to worry about? Though the Kremlin insists it cannot happen, the chaos in Russia has raised fears of an accidental launch of nuclear missiles. Also, Pakistan and India have enhanced their capabilities in the past year and tested nuclear weapons. But of even greater concern is the development of long-range missiles by rogue states like Stalinist North Korea, with its connections to terrorists and drug smugglers. Other rogue states that worry policy makers in Washington — like Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya — are improving their ballistic arsenals. But Pyongyang is the only member of the group that has, or may soon have, a missile that can reach America, a point emphasized last year when North Korea test-fired a three-stage rocket over Japan that could reach parts of Hawaii or Alaska. It was the ballistic shot heard around the world, resonating especially in Washington, where it took the C.I.A. by surprise. The C.I.A. also believes North Korea has created a more powerful rocket that could hit the western half of the American mainland with a sizable warhead, though earlier this month North Korea agreed to a testing freeze in exchange for economic assistance from the United States and Japan.

Whether North Korea honors the freeze or not, the underlying technology presumably could still be offered for sale in “rogue to rogue” commerce. This is not what President Bush had in mind when he hailed, as the Soviet Union collapsed, a “new world order.”

“I would argue that with Russia being the basket case that it is today, we have more threats than we had when we had the cold war going on between us and the Soviet Union, and they are much more divergent threats,” says Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania, a longtime advocate of missile defense whose office is decorated with models of rockets and fighter planes. “They are threats that come not just from Russia but from North Korea, from Iran, Iraq, perhaps from China and from terrorist activities, and much of it is because of proliferation.”

His view, which used to be considered extremist, has entered the mainstream of strategic thinking. A few days before North Korea promised to freeze its missile testing, the C.I.A. warned that by the year 2015 Pyongyang and Iran could possess long-range missiles that could “kill tens of thousands or even millions, of Americans.” Iraq was categorized as slightly less likely to do so in the same time span. Last year, a Congressionally appointed panel headed by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that the threat of attack from missiles tipped with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads is “evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community.” In July, another blue-ribbon panel, headed by former C.I.A. Director John Deutch, warned that the United States is “not effectively organized to combat proliferation” of weapons of mass destruction. And so on.

These are what the Pentagon calls “homeland threats,” a phrase echoing from the 1950’s and 1960’s, when fallout shelters and duck-and-cover drills were the rage. The millennial makeover of homeland defense does not mean arming the citizens of Santa Monica with revolvers to repel Communist frogmen. The Pentagon, along with the F.B.I. and C.I.A. and Justice Department, among other agencies, is increasing its focus on combating terrorism, cyber attacks, germ warfare, biological warfare, suitcase nuclear bombs, ICBM’s–the works. Constructing a defensive shield against incoming missiles is the most expensive component of homeland defense and, perhaps, the ultimate reflection of fortress America; critics refer to National Missile Defense as a modern-day Maginot line. Critics say the Reagan-era vision remains far beyond our technological reach, and even if it were possible, a hostile nation or terrorist group would likely use the less-expensive methods of putting a weapon of mass destruction on a ship and exploding it in an American harbor or putting it into a van and detonating it in an American city, much as terrorists exploded a conventional bomb under the World Trade Center in 1993.

The Clinton Administration, which was cool to the missile-defense program, has changed its view. “I think your obligation is to try to counter all threats,” says Robert Bell, until recently senior director for arms control and defense policy at the National Security Council. “When you leave your house each day for work, you lock your door even though you’re 100 percent aware that a burglar can break a window.”

Largely in reaction to the North Korean launch and in an effort to deprive Republicans of a soft-on-defense issue in the 2000 election, the Administration and Democrats in Congress have abandoned much of their cautionary stance toward National Missile Defense and now join Republicans in emphasizing how the program is different from Star Wars. Instead of using space-based lasers, for example, it would use a battery of approximately 100 ground-based interceptors to destroy incoming missiles, and the system would be able to destroy only a handful of missiles rather than a cold-war barrage of thousands. These changes are supposed to make National Missile Defense not just cheaper than Star Wars but actually technologically feasible.

The viability of the system depends on Raytheon’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, which has not had a full flight test. The Sept. 30 test was originally scheduled for June, but pushed back to August and then pushed back again until now. When it happens, the E.K.V. will be launched into space from the Kwajalein Missile Range, in the Marshall Islands, a few minutes after a missile is launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, in a “hit to kill” mission. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, the E.K.V. will separate from its booster, home in on the Vandenberg missile and, if all goes well, smash it to pieces. If the kill occurs, President Clinton will be more likely to give a green light to deploy the system. The Pentagon has already examined potential sites in North Dakota and Alaska. Should the E.K.V. miss its target, a chorus of critics will be ready.

The executive conference room at the Raytheon factory has a ground-floor view of National Guard F-16’s taking off from an adjacent airstrip, but the fighter jets are less striking than a poster in a corner of the room. At first, it appears to plug a Hollywood action film. An image of Earth fills the background, and in the foreground, an odd-looking contraption, half-satellite and half-missile, streaks through space. A hot-blooded slogan stretches across the bottom: “Discriminate and Destroy.”

The poster promotes the E.K.V., not a Schwarzenegger flick. And a model of the E.K.V. rests atop the conference-room table, where Reis and Lockard sit anxiously on either side of it, like parents of a precocious and unpredictable child. Place mats laid out on the table for sandwiches sport diagrams of the E.K.V. Wherever you look, there seems to be an image of the weapon that discriminates and destroys.

Reis, who is Lockard’s superior but less talkative, has the bearing of a grim leader for whom defeat is not an option; he has a weary look on his face. If the E.K.V. works, his company stands to win a huge sum in contracts. If it fails, the company may still win large contracts — the wonderful thing about working for the Pentagon is that failure to deliver a product can mean more money is channeled your way until you get it right — but the incoming fire from politicians and journalists will not be insubstantial. “I have a high degree of confidence that we’re going to hit it the first time,” he says. “Barring a reliability problem, if it flies, we’ll hit it. No question about it.”

These sorts of bullish statements have been uttered for decades by military contractors. However, there have been far more failures than successes in antimissile programs — and at least one falsified success. Back in 1984, the Pentagon trumpeted a direct hit on a missile by a heat-seeking interceptor. It was only later, years later, that the Pentagon admitted the warhead on the missile had been warmed before launch, making a direct hit a near certainty.

More recently, the Pentagon has poured $3.9 billion into an antimissile program known as Theater High Altitude Area Defense, designed to destroy missiles aimed at troops or cities outside the United States. In its first six flights, Thaad registered zero intercepts; reliability problems were blamed, meaning mechanical parts or computer codes failed to perform their tasks. After the sixth consecutive failure, in March, the Pentagon tried to spin its way out of trouble by claiming the test was successful because 16 of 17 objectives were met. But hitting the target happened to be the 17th objective. This summer, Thaad’s fortunes improved considerably as two test flights scored hits. Although critics say the tests were conducted under conditions unlikely to prevail in a war (the timing and trajectory of the missile were known), the Pentagon was so enthused that suggestions were floated that Thaad could be deployed earlier than expected and a $15 million fine levied against Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor blamed for the delays and six botched tests, was lifted.

I mention to Lockard and Reis that the sort of gung-ho predictions they make were made by Lockheed Martin when it began its test flights of Thaad. “We just believe very strongly in the process we’ve put in place,” Lockard replies. “And I really quite frankly don’t know the Lockheed Martin process, so I can’t comment on it.”

When I ask whether Raytheon will be able to deliver a functioning E.K.V. at the promised price, Reis says: “We have an excellent base line for this vehicle. You’ll see it; it exists; it’s gone through a lot of tests. And we’ve got an outfit here in Tucson that knows how to build missiles to cost. That’s been their legacy. We don’t have 15 missile programs out here because we overran a lot of programs.”

They may not have overrun a lot of programs, but at least a current one — a program to equip Navy vessels with antimissile interceptors — is costing far more than promised. In April, the Pentagon announced the program would cost nearly 50 percent more than planned, rising, overnight, from $913 million to more than $1.3 billion. When I mention this, Reis laughs a bit nervously and says Raytheon is only one of the contractors and only partly responsible for the escalating price tag. “Our portion of that overrun was 20 percent of that 50 percent,” he says.

At the factory, when we enter the E.K.V. laboratory, several dozen engineers and technicians are at work, dressed in the unofficial uniform of short-sleeved shirts, Dockers and ID tags. The laboratory is a modest place, not much larger than a tennis court or two, stuffed with computers, vacuum chambers, a “clean room” for assembling sensitive parts, computer simulation terminals and, of course, the E.K.V. itself, which does not look like a slayer of missiles. In fact, it looks nothing like a missile at all. It has an ungainly appearance that suggests a homemade jetpack, and from head to toe it measures just 52 inches; it could fit into the trunk of a compact car. Attached to the E.K.V. on the day I visit is a yellow tag, of the sort attached to airline baggage, that says, “Very Fragile.”

Fuel tanks, thrusters and piping are anchored around a cylinder that is attached to a telescopelike device that lets the sensors “see” the incoming missile and measure its speed, dimensions and density. That information will whiz through the E.K.V.’s processors and help it home in on the missile’s warhead. Raytheon says the E.K.V. will be able to hit within centimeters of the desired point of impact on the warhead.

The E.K.V. does not carry any explosives. Because it will be traveling at 75 miles a minute, the kinetic force of its collision with the incoming warhead will destroy both devices. But hitting the warhead is even tricker than the bullet-hitting-a-bullet metaphor would suggest because of the possible decoy measures that might be deployed. A mylar balloon that inflates in space around a warhead is one such decoy. There is also the potential for fake warheads inside the balloon and the use of metal chaff to travel alongside the warhead as an alternate target. Much of the debate about the usefulness of National Missile Defense revolves around the E.K.V.’s ability to outsmart these decoys, and the debate devolves into a ballistic form of he said, she said, with some critics saying the decoy-foiling technology does not exist and will not exist anytime soon and Raytheon engineers insisting just as strongly that it does, though the evidence is, unfortunately, classified.

For Raytheon, the best-case scenario may be the least-likely scenario — that the E.K.V. will work on its first flight test, that President Clinton will give a green light to building the system and that it will be deployed by 2005, on time and on budget. What comes next? That’s a vexing question, because it is entirely possible the system, even if it is built and actually works, would be obsolete soon after its completion.

In a 1996 report, the Congressional Budget Office said the “thin” defense offered by N.M.D. may need to be thickened in the years ahead as rogue nations expand and enhance their arsenals. An effective defense against the ballistic threats of tomorrow would require space-based interceptors and space-based lasers, the budget office reported, because precious minutes are wasted by ground-based weapons that must be boosted into space after a hostile missile is already on its way to America. According to the report, the cost of building such an enhanced system could “greatly exceed $60 billion by 2010.”

The budget office’s view is supported by Representative Weldon, who readily admits NMD will need to be expanded if the threat from rogue nations advances. “That’s something this Administration doesn’t want to talk about,” he said in a thunderous voice during an interview in his Washington office. “Space is going to become a more critical part. Space-based sensing, space-based queuing and space-based assets. It is a fact that we are going to have to deal with. We might as well be honest about that. In the end, the most capable response will come from outer space.”

If so, the $10.5 billion now budgeted for National Missile Defense may turn out to be little more than a down payment on a far grander system that has already been discussed, years before. Back then it was called Star Wars.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.