Missile Defense System Earns Putin's Ire

| | A GMD interceptor rocket on the launch pad. Photo: Missile Defense Agency|

Protesters in Europe are rallying today against Bush Administration plans to build missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that his nation will take "retaliatory steps" if the U.S. proceeds with these plans. But would such a system even work?

In theory, the system would destroy an incoming missile by intercepting it mid-course with a rocket carrying a "kill vehicle." But critics have likened this method to hitting a bullet with a bullet—no easy task.

The Pentagon's most recent test of the technology, originally scheduled for last year but delayed until May 25, was an embarrassment. The "attack" missile, carrying a dummy warhead, fell so far short of its target that the interceptor missile was never launched.

There has been only one successful intercept test since 2002. Last September, an interceptor fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California took down a dummy missile over the South Pacific. Critics say these tests aren't realistic because they are carefully scripted, leaving little chance for the interceptor to be fooled by a decoy.

Even if the missile-defense system planned for eastern Europe works perfectly, it may not protect eastern Europe from missiles. Such a system is designed for high-altitude interceptions, so it works best when positioned between the launch site and the target, rather than near the target. That's why U.S. missile-defense facilities are located on the California and Alaska coasts rather than inland.

The eastern European missile-defense system is intended to serve as a shield for the U.S., not Europe. So why would Poland and the Czech Republic want such a system? Because a U.S. military base on their soil may be the best protection of all. —Dawn Stover