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The New Nuclear Threat.


An American missile tipped with a dummy warhead roars out of its silo on the California coast. Seconds later, another missile from a U.S. base 4,300 miles away in the Pacific Ocean streaks into the clear January sky. At the nose of this interceptor lies what may be the world's most sophisticated high-tech gadget, a 120-pound kill vehicle designed to seek out nuclear warheads aimed at the U.S. and knock them to pieces.

From a bomb-proof command center deep inside a Colorado mountain, military technicians track this search-and-destroy test of an antimissile defense system with a series of radars and space satellites. The scene on the monitors looks like something out of Star Wars.

5 ... 4 ... 3 ...

High-tech sensors on the interceptor, chilled to -300 degrees in the cold of outer space, home in on the dummy warhead at 15,000 miles per hour. Seconds before contact, the command center is on the verge of celebration. Suddenly, the interceptor veers--and misses. The dummy warhead plummets into an empty stretch of the Pacific Ocean.

Welcome to the new arms race, 21st-century style. This failed test is just the latest snag in an ambitious $60 billion American plan to create a network of missile interceptors that would form a defensive shield against nuclear attacks from other countries.

After years on the back burner, the threat of nuclear missiles has suddenly become a major concern again. So-called "rogue nations"--countries such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, that ignore international law and are sworn enemies of the U.S.--are busily trying to build nuclear warheads and the sophisticated missiles needed to launch them at America.

In response, the U.S. has begun testing interceptors, and if President Clinton gives the go-ahead this fall, the first 25 of them, stationed in Alaska, could come on-line in five years. Polls show that Americans back the idea of a missile defense system by a wide margin. But the plan raises a host of difficult questions: Will it escalate the arms race? How safe is safe enough? And, given test results like the one in January, will it work?


We aren't supposed to be living in fear of nuclear attack anymore. The nuclear age began in 1945, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities to hasten the end of World War II. The Soviet Union developed its own bomb in 1949, and the two nations entered a terrifying and costly arms race. The world learned to live with the constant fear of instant nuclear annihilation--a fear that came closest to being realized when the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba nearly led to all-out nuclear war in 1962. But with the end of the U.S.-Soviet arms race in 1989 (when the Soviet Union collapsed), most people figured the specter of nuclear war had gone the way of the phonograph record.

Not so fast, say arms experts. Thomas Graham Jr., director of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security, a Washington arms-control group, says bluntly: "The likelihood of a nuclear weapon being used now is greater than at any time other than the Cuban missile crisis."


Of course, it's still possible that a nuclear warhead shot from Russia or China could arc into outer space and descend onto any city in the U.S. in a matter of minutes. If you were anywhere nearby, you might see a flash. Then, goodbye. You're gone.

The new threat, so far, is just that. North Korea, Iraq, and Iran don't yet have the capability to launch nuclear missiles at the U.S., according to U.S. intelligence officials. But North Korea, which shot a test missile over Japan into the Pacific last year, might have a missile capable of reaching the U.S. in five years.

Some experts say the fear is exaggerated. Satellite photos suggest that North Korea's current missile program, the most advanced among the three nations, is far too primitive ever to build missiles that could cross the Pacific Ocean. "It's the mouse that roared," says John E. Pike, director of the Federation of American Scientists, which analyzed the photos. "[They have] a singularly unimpressive facility."

But others say even primitive facilities pose a threat. Says Frank J. Gaffney, a former Pentagon official who directs the Center for Security Policy: "We'd be fools to ignore capabilities that have the potential to do us grave harm."


But when it comes to a missile defense system, the bottom line is whether it works. Recent history raises doubts. (see Opinion, page 36.) In 1983, President Ronald Reagan pressed for a lavish shield of missiles and space-based X-ray lasers to protect the U.S. from nuclear attack. The plan was derided as science fiction and dubbed "Star Wars" by its critics. And, in fact, after spending $60 billion, the military dropped the plan in 1993 when the technology didn't pan out.

Today, President Clinton and others say that new technology makes a scaled-down version of Reagan's dream possible. January's failure, Defense Department officials say, was caused by a mechanical breakdown, not fundamental flaws in the system. And more recently, Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush has one-upped the President, advocating the full-scale Star Wars idea (See "Politics," page 19.)

But at least one important critic who has examined the test data questions whether defensive missiles could ever work. Theodore Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology arms expert, says that a nuclear missile can release dozens of decoy warheads meant to throw an interceptor off course. Postol and other scientists say the interceptor's sensor will never be smart enough to pick out the real warhead.

The Pentagon admits that the sensors aren't yet battle-ready, but officials say researchers will work out the kinks as the system is developed. "This technology is difficult," says Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, the director of the missile defense program. "We'll walk before we run, [introducing] increasingly stressful decoys to match what we expect from enemy threats."


But even if the shield works, critics say that it could touch off a new arms race. President Clinton had barely finished proposing the new system when protests began flowing in from around the world. Many nations fear that the U.S. shield would overturn the basic premise of nuclear deterrence that has prevailed since the Cold War. Known as MAD (mutually assured destruction), the theory holds that a nation will never launch an attack as long as it knows the enemy could annihilate it in a counterattack. If the U.S. alone becomes unassailable, some countries argue, it will have the upper hand, and the delicate balance that has kept nuclear weapons from being used for 55 years will be destroyed.

China, for one, which has as few as 18 nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S., might not be able to retaliate. A missile inferiority complex could spur China to increase its nuclear force. "We will not sit on our hands," says China's chief arms negotiator, Sha Zukang. "To defeat your defenses we'll have to spend a lot of money, and we don't want to do this. But otherwise the United States will feel it can attack anyone at any time, and that isn't tolerable."

If China goes on a weapons-building spree, other nations will follow to keep pace, some arms experts believe.

Russia has other objections. Although a missile shield wouldn't stand up to Russia's thousands of warheads, Russian officials say the shield would violate the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty the U.S. signed with the Soviet Union (which included Russia). The treaty outlaws missile interceptors like those in Clinton's plan. Arms-control experts fear Russia might express its displeasure by calling off its plans to reduce its nuclear force.


Already, Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun lobbying for an international missile defense system that would include Russia and Europe. Putin also favors a different technique--striking down enemy missiles just after they are launched from the ground. Some U.S. arms experts agree that such a system could be more realistic. "It's a lot easier to put a lid over North Korea than an umbrella over the United States and the eastern Pacific," says Richard Garwin, a leading physicist who has advised Congress on missile defense.

But missile-shield proponents say both Russia and China stand to benefit from a shield--nuclear-equipped rogue nations threaten them too, the argument goes. And Clinton has proposed sharing the missile-defense technology with friendly nations. "America's development of missile defenses is a search for security, not a search for advantage," says George W. Bush.

But will other nations buy that reasoning? Some critics are already saying the idea of sharing missile defenses will founder on the shoals of real-world politics. "The Pentagon is no more likely to agree to give away advanced American technology than it ever was," says Frances Fitzgerald, author of a recent book on the Reagan-era missile defense system. "And no country except the United States can afford an open-ended missile defense program."


The cornerstone of the President's $60 billion program to defend the U.S. from nuclear attacks is a interceptor missile that would knock an incoming nuclear warhead out of the sky. Here's an illustration of how it's supposed to work.


The Nuclear Club

Eight nations, shown in green, have strategic, or long-range, nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia are junking some nukes--but leaving more that enough to blow us all to smithereens.


(*) Estimates.

SOURCES: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Center for Defense information

What If a Bomb Fell on the Empire State Building in New York City?

Here is a hypothetical look at the destruction that would result from a one-megaton atomic bomb (about 80 times the power of the bomb that fell on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945) exploding in the middle of the day, in the middle of the nation's most populous city.(*)

(What would happen if a bomb fell on your hometown? View the effects at the "Race for the Superbomb" Web site at bomb/index.html.)


(*) These figures are based on an estimated daytime population of 2,975,000 in Manhattan, assuming the weather to be clear, with a 15-mph easterly wind.

SOURCES: Atomic Archive (; The Effects of Nuclear War, Washington: Office of Technology Assessment, Congress of the United States, 1979; PBS.

RELATED ARTICLE: Nuclear Politics

Everyone running for President is for being safe from nuclear attack--the big question is how. Republican candidate George W. Bush has proposed building a major Star Wars-like defense system that would use missiles and lasers based on land, at sea, and in outer space. Democratic candidate Al Gore backs the more modest plan favored by President Clinton, building a limited nuclear shield in Alaska that would protect the U.S. against missiles launched from Asia or the Middle East.

Gore says Bush's plan would spark a new arms race with Russia and China and therefore "undermine our security." Bush insists that he can persuade Russia and China that his shield is in their best interest.

But is either plan realistic? "Science is evolving," Bush says.

With reporting by New York Times reporters WILLIAM J. BROAD in New York and ERIK ECKHOLM in Beijing.
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Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 4, 2000
Next Article:Teen Power.

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