A prominent critic of anti-missile systems has found what he says is a major flaw in the Pentagon's anti-missile plan and is calling on the White House to appoint a high-level scientific panel to investigate what he says were fraudulent efforts to cover it up.
If he is correct, the flaw may cripple or even kill the proposed weapon system, the cost of which is estimated at up to $60-billion.
The critic is Dr. Theodore A. Postol, professor of science and national security studies at MIT, author of many reports on anti-missile systems and in the 1980s a science adviser to the chief of naval operations on ballistic missile technologies and potential weapons against them. He made his new charges in a May 11 letter to John Podesta, the White House chief of staff, after reviewing Pentagon data gathered by an anti-missile whistle-blower.
Postol's critique centers on the hardest part of the missile defense challenge: distinguishing incoming weapons from decoys and destroying them.
In the letter, a copy of which he gave to the New York Times, Postol said Pentagon sensor data he had obtained from the first anti-missile test flight in June 1997 showed that the ground-based interceptor was inherently unable to make the distinction and that the Pentagon and its contractors had attempted to hide this failure.
The coverup, he said, was "like rolling a pair of dice and throwing away all outcomes that did not give snake eyes." An inability to tell cheap decoys from costly warheads in theory could force a defender to fire interceptors at every threatening object, which as a practical matter could make the system useless.
P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House was carefully weighing Postol's appeal but was unlikely to move quickly.
"It's premature to say this merits an outside review," Crowley said. "We have to let the Department of Defense complete its deployment readiness review," which starts in late June and lasts a month.
Postol's charges are based partly on a criticism by Dr. Nira Schwartz, a former senior engineer at TRW, a top military contractor. In a suit against TRW, Schwartz has charged the company with faking anti-missile tests and evaluations of computer programs for the interceptor's sensor and then firing her when she protested. Through her litigation and a Pentagon inquiry, Schwartz obtained many anti-missile reports and data, some of which she has shared with Postol.