Elite Scientific Team Develops Top-Secret Defense Weapons on Kwajalein Atoll : ‘Star Wars’ Has a Foot on the Ground in Pacific

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Associated Press

“Star Wars” comes to Earth on this remote Pacific outpost of American high tech and top secrecy.

The work done on Kwajalein’s sandy atoll--on anti-missile systems, deep-space tracking and the MX missile--is at the heart of the U.S.-Soviet standoff over new weaponry, especially over the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars, President Reagan’s program for developing advanced anti-missile weapons.

‘Killer’ Missile Last June, Kwajalein’s elite brigade of civilian scientists reached a Star Wars plateau, destroying an incoming dummy nuclear warhead in space with a “killer” missile.


The U.S. Army officers who run Kwajalein say that they are preparing for tests of new defensive technology within two years.

“This is the unique place the United States has for (Strategic Defense Initiative) testing. It has the instrumentation, the facilities and the people,” said Maj. Mike Maurer, research and development coordinator for Kwajalein Missile Range.

But two obstacles--one big, the other small--may stand in their way.

The big one, the Soviet Union, wants to curb space and other defensive weaponry. That will be decided in new superpower negotiations, the groundwork for which was laid in talks at Geneva.

The smaller obstacle is the local Marshallese people, who want to halt the test site’s operations. The 5,000 or so Kwajalein landowners, packed together, out of the way, on a single slum of an island, want a better financial deal from Washington. That issue may be decided in the U.S. courts.

Kwajalein is a 60-mile-long loop of 93 islets ringing a huge lagoon in the central Pacific, just north of the Equator.

It exploded into the headlines 41 years ago, during World War II, when U.S. Army and Marine units stormed ashore to wrest it from the Japanese in a bloody battle.


Today, among the old Japanese bunkers and swaying coconut palms, a high-technology community has sprung up; its landmarks are a scattering of towering radar domes that sit atop the surf-pounded strips of dry land like giant Ping-Pong balls.

The installation has an American population of about 3,000. Only 30 are military personnel. The rest are engineers, technicians and other civilian workers and their spouses and children. Most live on mile-square Kwajalein, the biggest island in the atoll that bears its name.

“Kwaj” could be a small town lifted from mid-America: It has two nine-hole golf courses and a pair of swimming pools, high school proms and a VFW, rock on the radio and seven brands of beer in the bar.

But the difference is clear. This town’s Bermuda shorts-clad workers are experts in radar, optics and missile guidance, men and women from MIT, RCA, GTE and Kentron who pore over pages of mathematical formulas as they commute daily to the atoll’s facilities aboard Army aircraft.

The complex--nine major radar sites, more than a dozen advanced telescopic and photographic installations, two missile launching sites--is super-sophisticated and super-secret. Some control rooms are totally off limits to visitors.

The $1 billion or more worth of equipment being used on Kwajalein is impressive--mammoth radar dishes shaped to hairbreadth tolerance and pumping out 400 billion watts of power; telescopes that can pick up a 17,000-m.p.h. missile 2,000 miles away and hold it in its sights; even a high-tech video camera that was used in making Hollywood’s cinematic “Star Wars.”


The greatest tribute to Kwajalein’s one-of-a-kind technological prowess is paid by the Soviets, who station an electronics surveillance ship just offshore in the turquoise Pacific, picking up the streams of encoded data being beamed back to the United States.

In the early 1960s, the Pentagon decided that Kwajalein, the world’s largest atoll, would make a superb intercontinental bull’s-eye.

The Air Force’s Ballistic Missile Office is the atoll’s best “customer.” About 20 times a year, the Air Force fires an unarmed test Minuteman or, more recently, a new MX missile, from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, lofting it 5,000 miles into Kwajalein’s shallow lagoon or nearby waters.

The atoll’s extremely sensitive equipment can read every nuance of how the missile, its warheads and decoys perform.

Kwajalein’s most spectacular recent accomplishment went by the unassuming name Homing Overlay Experiment, in which a 10-year, $300-million program culminated in the first known direct interception of a “nuclear” warhead by a defensive missile.

Last June 10, an unarmed ICBM was launched from Vandenberg toward Kwajalein. Minutes later, an anti-ballistic missile was fired off Kwajalein.


Using a new infrared-homing system, the heat-seeking defender caught the ICBM’s warhead more than 100 miles up in space, over the Pacific, and destroyed it in a collision that flashed explosively across the sensor screens here and delighted scientists.

Massive Tracking Radar “It was like trying to hit one bullet with another, only two orders of magnitude more difficult,” Maurer said.

Officials of the Army’s Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command, mindful of the delicacy of the superpower talks, are reluctant to discuss Kwajalein’s possible Star Wars role. They point out that the atoll is not directly involved in research on laser-beam weapons and other potential space-based defensive systems.

But the Lockheed Corp., builder of the “homing overlay” weapon, has indicated that such a defensive tool could be used against enemy satellites as well--a key task in any future Strategic Defense Initiative program. And Kwajalein already has in service a massive radar--the 150-foot-diameter Altair--that tracks Soviet satellites with uncanny accuracy.

Kwajalein’s importance has caught the eye of international peace activists. The anti-nuclear group Greenpeace plans to sail one of its protest ships to these distant dots of coral in mid-March.

The seaborne peace demonstrators may join forces with the natives of Kwajalein, who live on the atoll’s densely crowded Ebeye Island, a salt spray-coated, 78-acre slum of cement-block and plywood shanties.


The Kwajalein residents say that the United States should pay them more than the $9 million a year established under an agreement by which the Marshall Islands, part of the 37-year-old, U.S.-administered U.N. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, is expected to gain semi-independence later this year.

Kwajalein landowners recently filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court calling for at least a temporary halt to missile range operations.

The Greenpeace activists champion the Kwajalein natives’ cause, but they take a broader view also.

“You can make the case that Kwajalein atoll has contributed more to . . . the arms race than any spot on Earth,” Steve Sawyer, leader of Greenpeace’s planned Pacific protest, said in a Washington interview.