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An Invitation to the Pentagon

From the Editor in Chief
April 1, 2002

I have an invitation for our nation’s top defense officials, those responsible for the development of our current missile defense effort (now called NMD, for “national missile defense”). But before we get there, let me describe the context for this invitation, which is established in two dramatic articles in this issue of Technology Review.

Both articles focus on a controversy over missile defense that has an MIT professor at its center. Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security, is a prickly, fractious man who irritates and accuses almost everyone who crosses his path, as contributing writer Gary Taubes acknowledges in his article “Postol vs. the Pentagon,” which begins on page 52 of this issue. There’s no question that Ted Postol’s “people skills,” as the jargon has it, are not his strong suit.

But there’s also no question that he’s well placed to cast a cold eye on the nation’s missile defense effort, which has, despite skepticism from the science and engineering community, stubbornly refused to succumb since it was conceived as the Strategic Defense Initiative in the long-ago Reagan era. Postol was trained in physics, and he has a distinguished background in government and academia as an analyst of national security issues. Sidney Drell, former director of the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University and Postol’s former boss there, calls Postol “a unique resource for doing hard-nosed, accurate, reliable and important technical analysis of military systems.” Drell adds that he’s never known Postol to be wrong on an important security issue.

One big issue on which Postol appears to have been dead right is the inadequacy of the Patriot missile system. During the Gulf War the Pentagon trumpeted the success of the Patriot in shooting down Iraq’s Scud missiles. The official line was that the Patriot’s prowess showed the viability of the concept of missile defense. The first President Bush gushed in a 1991 speech, “Patriot is proof positive that missile defense works.”

As Taubes describes, Postol became the skunk at the Patriot party. Using the Pentagon’s own videotapes, which had been broadcast on television, he showed that the Patriot could not have knocked out nearly as many Scuds as its proponents claimed. In a reverse version of the story of those other Patriots (the Super Bowl champions), the missile quickly went from first to worst. Everyone, except perhaps the missile’s maker, Raytheon, eventually conceded that the Patriot was a Gulf War bust.

Now, as Taubes tells us, Postol is up to his old tricks. This time he’s taking aim at a series of tests of the current missile shield. As in the case of the Patriot, an early test of the current system, conducted over the Pacific in 1997, was proclaimed by the Pentagon to be a success that vindicated the concept of missile defense generally. An antimissile missile, known in defense lingo as an “exoatmospheric kill vehicle,” flew by a cloud of decoys surrounding a dummy warhead. According to the official version, the kill vehicle’s sensors picked the “warhead” out from among the decoys-a key task for any defense system that aims to destroy warheads after they’ve already separated from their booster rockets, as the current one does.

Not so fast, says Postol. Spurred on by the work of whistle-blower Nira Schwartz-a former employee of TRW, a firm that developed key missile defense technology-Postol conducted his own analysis. He concludes that the 1997 trial was actually a failure and that the data from that experiment and subsequent ones have been manipulated. He lays out the evidence in an article of his own, “Why Missile Defense Won’t Work,” that begins on page 42.

Not that Ted Postol is opposed to any conceivable form of missile defense. On the contrary, he believes a more modest system-short-range rockets that aim to destroy missiles shortly after launch, while they’re still in the earth’s atmosphere and the warheads haven’t yet detached-is feasible. And he believes, as he writes in his piece, that the United States should contemplate deploying such a system, which, he argues, would be far less destabilizing, geopolitically, than the one we’re working on now. But he argues forcefully that the current system does not and cannot work and that its deployment will make the world a significantly less safe place to live.

Here’s where we return to my invitation. I find Postol’s credentials impressive and his technical arguments plausible. Still, there are always two sides to every story, and on an issue as critical as this, the public has the right to hear both sides openly debated. Therefore I am extending an invitation to the Pentagon to send a spokesperson well versed in missile defense to debate the merits of the current version of missile defense with Ted Postol. Technology Review will find a venue and I will be happy to moderate the discussion personally. I feel sure that other media, including radio and television, would find such a dialogue newsworthy.

Indeed, it is newsworthy. Missile defense, like war, is too important to be left to the generals. It is a subject too significant to be debated behind closed doors or in classified documents. The health and safety of our society depend on our willingness as citizens to assimilate important scientific and technical issues and make up our own minds about them. I hope those responsible for the development of our missile defense system will agree.

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