From Huntsville, with love and rockets


missdef2.jpgFunding for missile defense may not be quite what it used to be, but then again, it ain't exactly suffering by the looks of the very-packed annual conference I'm attending here in Huntsville, Alabama. Since there have been no recent tests to discuss, the most entertaining part of the conference has been reading The Eagle, the "authorized unofficial newspaper" published by U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. The latest issue has some great descriptions of the Alaska National Guard rushing back to duty when the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System was declared operational last month during the North Korea crisis."Cruises left for exotic locations with family members aboard as the Soldiers reported back to headquarters for duty," reports The Eagle, which has a flair for the dramatic. The newspaper also describes one married couple whose vacation to Hawaii was interrupted by the call to duty in Alaska (just prior to the spouse's deployment to Iraq). That sucks, though probably more for the spouse off to Iraq than for the one sent back to Alaska.But the stories of lost vacation point to an as-yet unresolved issue: proponents of missile defense have long argued that the U.S. should pursue concurrent testing and operations -- but there isn't really any way to do that yet, as officials here acknowledge. They can switch between testing and operations but not do both simultaneously.Currently, Army Space and Missile Defense Command operates the missile defense system (that is, when it's operational, and it isn't exactly clear what that means). During tests (and in preperations for tests), it's transferred over to the Missile Defense Agency, and the operators are effectively booted out. There's no way to, say, dedicate half your missiles to testing and half to operations the systems aren't in place to do that yet, officials here say.So, while Fearless Leader waited to the Fourth of July weekend to send a signal to America (and to mess up some soldiers' vacations), in fact, he got it all wrong. Since you can't test and operate, North Korea could have waited for the Missile Defense Agency to conduct a test, launched its missiles, and waited for the inevitable mayhem that would followed as the military tried to switch from "test" to "operations" mode.Of course, as critics of the system point out, tests, particularly successful ones, are few and far between these days. There hasn't been a successful intercept test of the missile defense for four years.- Sharon Weinberger

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