In a frantic race with high winds, bone-chilling ice storms and rattled political nerves, the American defense establishment has been rushing to meet the threat now faced by Hawaii, Guam, Alaska and possibly the West Coast of the US mainland - a North Korean advanced Taepodong-2 missile. The now-contested regime of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been a full partner in the development.
Bellicose and prone to tantrums, North Korea's bizarre strongman Kim Jong-Il has ordered a test of the Taepodong-2, apparently in the direction of US territory. Hawaii, Guam and Alaska are in the crosshairs. The defense establishment is convinced the decisive moment will once again come provocatively on America's national holiday, July 4. This moment has been coming for more than a decade, and the Pentagon, North Korea and Iran have been preparing for it.
Alarm first sounded in 1999 when American defense officials realized that the Taepodong-1 missile, which doubled as an Iranian Shabab, was just the first phase of a decade-plus program by North Korea and Iran to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Named for Taepodong, the village where it is developed, the long-range Taepodong-1 was capable of 2,000 km., enough to threaten its neighbors. But the new Taepodong-2 could achieve double that range, more than 4,000 km. - most of the way to Hawaii - and was, therefore, approaching the status of ICBM. With the right wind conditions, this newer missile when further developed could reach the outer territories of the United States. If armed with a reduced-weight payload, and given favorable weather conditions, a properly guided TD-2 could reach the US, perhaps far inland, American defense planners feared.
What changed that made defense planners nervous in 1999? In the spring of that year, US satellites detected that the North Koreans had completed a years-long upgrade to its Taepodong-1 launch site. The expanded facilities could host the longer-range and taller-standing Taepodong-2. Specifically, the pad gantry umbilical tower (rising some 22 meters) was extended by about 10 meters to 33 meters tall to accommodate the taller missile. By late 1999, the firing installation had been almost fully retrofitted; but the new, more powerful missile had not been ferried to the launch pad for a test. That process takes two days of tedious testing and a small squadron of liquid fuel tanker trucks. Just mobilizing the tankers and the fuel supplies requires weeks of logistics. However, the entire program came to a standstill when North Korea was bribed with incentives as part of the international reaction to its troublesome nuclear and rocketry projects.
WHILE THE North Korean dictator was enjoying the wages of his blackmail, the Pentagon embarked on the crash construction of an anti-missile defense system to be located on the near-barren Aleutian island known as Shemya. The flat, desolate 15 sq.km. rock at the tip of the Aleutian chain off the Alaskan coast is some 3,000 miles from Seattle, 4,800 km. from Anchorage and 160 km. from the nearest Eskimo village. But it is even further west than the most westerly point of Hawaii.
For decades, Shemya had been a mid-Pacific refueling point. It sported a 3,000-meter runway left over from previous wars. In World War II, special hangers were built to house B-29 bombers for devastating raids over Japan. During the Cold War, Shemya hosted pivotal spy flights over the Soviet Union. At one point, Northwest Airlines leased the long airstrip to refuel its trans-Pacific routes. Today, the several dozen employees on "The Rock," as it is affectionately called, make up Eareckson Air Station.
Here, on this nearly-empty protrusion in the Pacific, just 30 meters above sea level, the Pentagon began the new century by rushing to build a forward X-Band radar facility designed as the world's most powerful missile detector. The X-Band would work in tandem with the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor missile), seaborne Standard missiles and lower-level Patriot-3s. X-Band, in conjunction with satellites and certain ground radars and early-warning aircraft, would detect a launch the very moment it happened, and track the offensive rocket for a number of seconds, just long enough to determine its trajectory and target. Midcourse corrections would be constant. The stream of data would allow multiple interceptors at high and low altitude to destroy the intruder, using their own on-board lock-on mechanisms as the final guidance to a kinetic kill. That is the theory.
The race for the Pentagon in 2000 was to complete the forward X-Band site on Shemya before North Korea could undertake enough testing to launch a Taepodong-2 should its unpredictable ruler decide to abandon multilateral talks. North Korean missile testing was hamstrung by harsh winters in the area that only allowed the remote facility to undertake launches during certain months. But the Shemya construction project faced similar weather challenges.
Shemya is one of the most inhospitable rocks on the planet. Winds of 65 to 130 kmh regularly sweep the flat, featureless terrain. But constructing new structures demanded wind conditions of less than 48 kmh for four-hour sessions. Moreover, the heavy cranes needed to hoist the radar dome components into place could not operate in winds exceeding 16 kmh. Subdued winds on Shemya, less than 16 to 48 kmh, only occur during June and July. More restrictive, the calmer 16 kmh winds needed for cranes only apply during July.
In the summer of 2000, president Bill Clinton rushed approval for the Shemya project. Acting with comparatively tornadic speed for Washington, the government authorized $500 million for the project. Any delay in that summer of 2000 would have meant the installation could not be completed by 2003. Unless the X-Band was in place by then, and unless more than 3,500 km. of fiber optic cable was simultaneously embedded a meter under the sea floor to connect the Shemya installation to the Alaskan mainland, the interceptors could not be operational by 2005. The anticipated early date for vulnerability to a North Korean missile launch was 2005.
Waiting just a few months until late 2000 for action would mean weather and the challenge of leasing fleets of barges would bow to North Korean missile advances. Indeed, the barges had to reach the Gulf of Alaska by May 2001 for construction crews to begin enjoying Mother Nature's 60-day annual window of opportunity. By August, the construction window is over. The project was launched on time in 2000.
Construction crews labored 24/7 in 10-hour shifts during those precious summer months. Exhausted, the men were rotated every few weeks. During construction, the site was extremely vulnerable to attack by any adversary, from aerial bombardment to a lightly-manned commando raid. It was a risk the Pentagon took.
WHILE NORTH Korea sat back and collected financial and material inducements, its missile development program was hardly stalled. Here is where Iran comes in. The Islamic regime undertook the crucial testing of North Korea's No-dong-A rocket engines, calling them "home-grown" Shabab missiles. North Korea's Changgwang Sinyong Corp. was set up to export and trade the technology in 1999. Operating under some two dozen alter egos, such as Changgwang Credit and Korean Mining and Industrial Development Corporation, the North Korean government company sent its rocket technology to the nuclear weapon labs of the notorious A.Q. Khan. Rocket engines were repeatedly provided to Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group located at Damavand Road 2 along the Abali Road industrial district in Teheran. Petrodollars from ordinary Americans continuously funded the project.
As many as a dozen engines reportedly arrived in Iran by the end of 1999, reportedly carried by an Iran Air Boeing 747 cargo jet that ferried them from an airfield 19 km. north of Pyongyang. It is thought that the booster Iran tested on September 21, 2000, which fell from the sky prematurely after just 105 seconds, may have been from this North Korean transfer. It was identified as a Shahab-3D/IRIS. But many intelligence sources believe Iran actually tested second and third stages of the Taepodong-2 ICBM, also known in Iran as the Shahab-5.
By May 2004, Western intelligence sources had identified Teheran's first so-called space satellite program as a mere cover for testing the Taepodong-2. Both the Korean and Iranian firms, Changgwang and Shahid Hemmat were sanctioned and blacklisted by Washington for weapons proliferation under Executive Order 13382 issued June 28, 2005. But the testing continued under the apocalyptic Ahmadinejad regime, again fueled by petrodollars from America and the world.
Iran continued to test Korean rockets during the years leading up to July 4, 2006, when North Korean missile ban commitments terminated. It was the very next day, July 5, 2006, that North Korea shot off two long-range missiles, startling vacationing Americans everywhere who learned of the news from widespread media reports.
Then, earlier this year, Iran's so-called satellite program stunned the world when Teheran successfully launched a multistage rocket into space on February 2. When Iran launched its satellite, the information and telemetry finally reassured North Koreans that their Taepodong-2 could work. That reassurance rang hollow when North Korea tested its own Taepodong-2 on April 5, with dismal results. It splashed down in the ocean far short of orbit. But the North Koreans are not after accuracy or even success as much as creating political sonic booms from their launches.
As the Iranians were codeveloping the Taepodong-2, and as construction crews worked around the clock to erect the Shemya X-Band, the Pentagon busily shipped more than two dozen missile interceptors to Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, Alaska. But even 100 such interceptors could only be expected to defend against a few dozen incoming warheads. It is not known how many Taepodong-2 or other shorter range missiles North Korea may shoot off, and how many will feature multiple warheads.
The Pentagon has also continued to accelerate development of the forward X-Band. It stationed one battery at the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force's Shariki base in Tsugaru. The Japanese facility became operational in December 2006. X-Band has also been rushed to Hawaii in recent weeks.
Pentagon planners hope that a decade of frantic efforts have erected a loose defense net of trackers that will include X-Band stations in Japan, mainland Alaska, Shemya and Hawaii working in tandem with satellites, and sea-based monitors. This tracking network would feed information to a thin line of barely-tested interceptor rockets stretching from the Sea of Japan across the expanses of the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii and Alaska.
ON THE seas, the navy has recently updated its Standard anti-aircraft missile system to cope with a Taepodong-2 threat. The ship-based Standard Missile-3 now possesses a longer range of more than 500 kilometers and a maximum altitude of 160 kilometers. Each SM3 costs more than $3 million. The four-stage SM3 relies upon the first three stages to synchronously boost it into the exosphere where it will encounter any threat. GPS readings are taken sequentially to correct course. The fourth and final stage deploys the killing vehicle, a 9 kg. Lightweight Exo-Atmospheric Projectile (LEAP). LEAP uses infrared sensors to close on the target and simply ram it. Raytheon Corporation developed LEAP but while it has passed muster in thousands of simulations, it has never been field tested.
More likely, the Pentagon will deploy the high-altitude THAAD because it is specifically designed to work with the constantly-correcting X-Band. Each THAAD battery deploys 24 missiles ensconced in three launchers synched to its X-Band radar controlling complex. The batteries cost $310 million each. The 635 kg. THAAD can soar 200 km., achieving an altitude of up to 150 km. THAAD silos were inspected by Secretary of Defense William Gates a on June 5.
The Pentagon has high hopes for THAAD, but it, too, has barely emerged from testing before being rushed to the field. As recently as March 17, it was still being tested. On that day, THAAD successfully intercepted a ballistic test missile target off the island of Kauai in Hawaii under the auspices of 6th Air Defense Artillery Brigade. On June 25, 2008, it successfully passed the 35th of some 43 interception test firings. But it is all theoretical.
No one knows what missile North Korea will launch, when it will launch it, toward what target - Guam, Hawaii, Alaska or someplace in Asia - and most importantly no one can predict the weather or the weight of the payload. Even a North Korean rocket with an empty warhead coming within 800 km. of American shores would be considered virtually an act of war.
Nor can anyone predict how North Korea's codeveloper-in-chief, the Ahmadinejad regime, will figure into the complex now that the streets are running red with the blood of democracy-demanding protesters. What could Iran do in a show of strength to prop up its own regime? What could it do in a show of solidarity with its missile partner regime, the North Koreans? If Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz, it will interrupt 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil and 20% of the American supply. American stockpiles would expire after 57 days. Washington has no plan for an oil interruption and has stubbornly refused to even discuss it.
Many are watching the calendars, the clocks and the clouds as the rogue elements on the globe, powered by petrodollars, converge on this latest crisis. All that can be stated for certain now is that no one has the answers. But they may have them by Sunday.
The writer is The New York Times best-selling author of IBM and the Holocaust, Nazi Nexus and The Plan - How to Rescue Society the Day the Oil Stops - or the Day Before. He can be reached at www.edwinblack.com.