About 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, crews at Ft. Greely last month gingerly lowered a 54-foot-tall, three-stage missile into a concrete silo.
It's the first weapon designed to destroy an enemy nuclear warhead in space from the sheer force of a pinpoint collision at 15,000 mph. And it is proving explosive in another way too, helping boost the business of Boeing Co., Raytheon Co. and others with operations in the Southland.
"All the defense companies in Southern California have their fingers in the missile-defense pie," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
The Alaskan installation marked the first step in the Bush administration's ambitious plan to implement a missile-defense shield with systems on land, on sea and in the air. By next year, 20 interceptors are set to be in place, including four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County.
The missile interceptors are also the first weapons that derive from President Reagan's "Star Wars" defense project. In 1983, Reagan directed the Pentagon to develop an antimissile shield using futuristic, high-tech weaponry, including laser beams and nuclear-powered reactors in space. The current system is more modest than what Reagan envisioned, yet it remains technologically complex, costly -- and controversial.
The interceptors mark "the end of an era where we have not been able to defend our country against long-range ballistic missile attacks," said Maj. Gen. John W. Holly, director of the ground-based element of the program.
Much of the design work on the interceptor was performed in California.
Chicago-based Boeing, the lead contractor on the interceptor program since 1998, has 500 engineers working on the project in Anaheim, plus 700 more toiling on other missile-defense work in Palmdale and Seal Beach. All told, Boeing reaps $3 billion in annual revenue from missile-defense work, accounting for about 5% of its total sales.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, spending on missile defense soared from $4.8 billion to nearly $10 billion this year. And the Bush administration wants to commit an additional $40 billion over the next four years on missile defense.
Critics, however, continue to assail the administration, saying it is deploying the interceptors prematurely, given that the missiles hit their target only five times in eight tests.
"We know we have not fully tested the system, but it's our view that it is better to have a system deployed that is not fully tested than to not have a system at all," said James Albaugh, president of Boeing's defense business.
Another beneficiary of the interceptor project is Raytheon, whose sprawling electronic systems unit in El Segundo built many of the sensors, radar and targeting equipment used in the missile system.
In December, Century City-based Northrop Grumman Corp. won a $4.5-billion, eight-year contract to develop a rocket that can destroy ballistic missiles right after takeoff. About 1,000 Northrop engineers locally are working on various missile-defense projects, such as early-warning satellites to detect missile launches.
"We see missile defense as a significant area of growth for us," Northrop Chief Executive Ronald D. Sugar said.
Another Northrop effort involves building lasers to shoot down airborne missiles immediately after takeoff. Northrop's lasers are being tested using an Air Force 747 jumbo jet at Edwards Air Force Base. If all goes well, the Pentagon hopes to put the lasers into use by 2008.
Yet the first batch of interceptors promises to be deployed far quicker. Designed to destroy in mid-flight enemy warheads heading for the U.S., they are expected to be fully ready for use in a few months.
A key component of the interceptor is a table-top-sized device, dubbed the "exoatmospheric kill vehicle," that is released in space. This vehicle uses its own guidance system to avoid decoys and countermeasures and slam into an enemy warhead. The 4-foot-long device caries no explosives and destroys its target by the massive force of a collision, at five times the speed of a bullet.
The kill vehicle was developed by Raytheon's El Segundo engineers. It carries optics to navigate, antennas to receive data from ground radar, a small computer and a refrigeration unit to form krypton ice cubes for cooling sensors.
Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon also is constructing a complex X-band radar system to track enemy missiles and then guide the interceptor to its target. About the size of a house, the radar system will be placed on an oil-rig-like platform off the coast of Alaska sometime in the fall of 2005.
Still, critics contend that the vast missile-defense program has mainly been a boondoggle for defense firms, with many cost overruns and delays. They peg the cost of the entire system since the Reagan administration at more than $160 billion.
Criticism increased in recent years as the Pentagon conducted tests of the interceptor, with mixed results. The military launched a Minuteman ballistic missile, acting as a dummy enemy warhead, toward the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific. Prototype interceptors were then fired from the islands, knocking out the "enemy" missiles five out of eight times.
But critics say the tests were rigged. The targets were often equipped with homing devices that provided information an enemy would never provide, to help the interceptor spot it. Pentagon officials insist the homing devices were necessary to test the interceptor's guidance systems.
"It's taken billions of dollars from other defense and homeland security priorities, and it doesn't work," said Philip Coyle, a former Pentagon chief for testing and evaluating weapons. "We're deploying a system that doesn't work and hasn't been adequately tested."
Defense analysts predict that the missile-defense debate will intensify if Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry wins the White House. Kerry has said he would add 40,000 more troops and help pay for them by cutting back on missile-defense spending, though he probably would face stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress.
Of course, there's little doubt where the area's defense contractors would come down in the debate. "The U.S. will have for the first time in history initial defense capability against ballistic missile attack," said Rick Yuse, head of Raytheon's missile- defense business. "That's extremely significant."