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How A Storm Spread A Cold War Chill


by Andrew Higgins
The Wall Street Journal,
June 6, 2000

VARDO, Norway -- The alarm sounded sometime after midnight on this frigid, storm-scoured island more than 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Within seconds, a relentless gale had stripped a radar dish of its huge Teflon-coated protective dome.

The radar had arrived just six months earlier, the high-tech jewel of a joint U.S.-Norwegian program to scan the heavens for defunct satellites and other manmade space rubbish. At least, that's how Norwegian officials had described the radar's principal purpose.

But some locals were skeptical, and the radar's exposure last winter heightened the suspicion. "The first thing I noticed was that the dish was facing directly at Russia," says Bjorn Skomakerstuen, editor of the local newspaper, a weekly tabloid that typically runs features on snowball contests, snowmobile races and a long-running dispute over seagull droppings. "I'm not an expert, but I thought space was in the sky." He grabbed his camera and rushed to take photographs, which he later published.

'An Intelligence Cobweb'

Now, the cutting-edge facility has found itself buffeted by more than a winter storm. It's caught in a gust of Cold War suspicion that has Moscow generals fuming, Vardo residents fretting and President Clinton scrambling in vain during two days of talks in the Kremlin over the weekend to mellow Russia's opposition to a U.S. missile shield. Wary of a radar so close to its territory, Russia has complained to the Pentagon, lectured Norway's foreign minister and publicly denounced what state-run television called "the center of an intelligence cobweb."

The furor surrounding the radar highlights the unease in Russia and among U.S. allies as support grows in Washington for a national missile-defense system, a technologically unproven but politically popular scheme to shelter the U.S. from nuclear missiles. Mr. Clinton, who left Moscow on Monday for Ukraine, says he will make a decision before leaving office on whether to deploy 100 interceptors in Alaska to shoot down incoming rockets, the proposed first phase of a missile defense network. Vice President Al Gore has endorsed this limited program. His likely rival in November's presidential election, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has called for more extensive antimissile defenses.

Washington says the aim of any such system is to block rockets from "rogue" states such as North Korea. But Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a joint news conference with Mr. Clinton on Sunday, said Moscow opposed "having a cure that is worse than the disease."

Still smarting from NATO's expansion in Eastern Europe and the air war against Yugoslavia, Russia believes defenses against rogue missiles could easily expand to drain Russia's last potent source of power: its own nuclear arsenal. This, say Russia and much of Europe, risks a new arms race.

Despite its location, Vardo has a long history of stumbling into big-power struggles. During theological battles of the 17th century, a zealous local commander burned more than 70 women alive as witches. During World War II, Nazis turned a nearby hill into a command center and garrison. After the Cuban missile crisis, which triggered a spasm of tension at the frontier with Russia, Vardo became a key link in a network of U.S.-sponsored electronic-intelligence posts in Norway, the only NATO member that shared a border with Russia.

With the end of the Cold War, Washington's interest waned. Congress questioned funding for expensive surveillance systems. Norway cut staff at Vardo and other sites. The Vardo council laid artificial turf just outside the still-restricted zone -- a rocky hill studded with electronic gadgetry -- and turned it into a public soccer pitch. A big yellow sign in Norwegian, English and Russian forbade photography up close; it seemed like a quaint relic from the past.

When the system, dubbed Globus II, arrived last year, it made a local impression. The facility resembled a huge golf ball teed up on the edge of this island where Arctic birds far outnumber the 2,800 residents and the one cherished tree (swaddled in cloth half the year to keep it alive). But it was the curiosity of Inge Sellevag, a science writer at the Norwegian newspaper Bergens Tidende, that put Vardo back on the geopolitical map.

Before the radar, a system known as X-band, arrived in Norway in May 1999, the Norwegian defense command in Oslo issued a statement referring obliquely to the system's ability to "monitor our areas of interest." Otherwise, the statement focused on space-related ventures, particularly the radar's use in tracking 9,500 orbiting objects, 93% of them inactive satellites.

But Mr. Sellevag started nosing around. "I was just curious," he says. One of his first calls was to Nicholas Johnson, head of the space-debris office of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA has a keen interest in space junk because of worries that it could collide with the space shuttle. Mr. Sellevag says Mr. Johnson told him he hadn't heard of any new radar in Norway. Mr. Sellevag thought this odd and began to wonder if the radar had tasks other than cataloging space rubbish.

Among details uncovered by Mr. Sellevag -- many of them published in his own newspaper and in the U.S. journal the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists -- was that this same X-band radar had been used at Vandenberg Air Force base in California for tests in 1997 and 1998 of sensors designed to detect warheads released from rockets. At the time, the Globus II radar went by the name of HAVE STARE.

Also not mentioned at the time of the installation was that the U.S. had received warnings from experts that foreign deployment of X-band radar could encroach on the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty. (X-band refers to radar that emits a concentrated high-frequency beam to collect highly accurate images.)

Norwegian and American officials deny that the radar, which won't now go into full operation until 2001, will assist any U.S. missile-defense program and say that it will be under Norwegian control and manned by Norwegian staff.

Mr. Johnson now says he knew "all along" about HAVE STARE's transfer to Norway, but adds: "All these radars have more than one mission. Usually, monitoring debris is a secondary or tertiary mission."

Tom Rykkin, a senior official in Norway's defense intelligence service, now says the emphasis on space junk could have been misinterpreted. Still, he says, "if you use a small part of the brain, you know this also has an intelligence mission. ... In the intelligence business, there are certain things you don't make public. It is the nature of the business."

He says, however, that the position of the radar's mechanically rotated dish when its seven-ton cover blew off was a pure coincidence, and that Globus II had just started preliminary testing. (Its 27-meter dish was quickly moved to face the sky.)

Vardo's full menu of missions is spelled out in its Concept of Operations, a text of about 50 pages negotiated by Norway and the U.S. Space Command, an arm of the Air Force. The document, like many aspects of Globus II, is classified. (Also classified are the details of cost-sharing between the U.S. and Norway. The Defense Department in 1998 gave Raytheon Co. a $23.5 million contract to relocate the radar to Vardo, but the system itself is estimated to have cost more than $100 million to develop and build.)

Not secret -- at least until the Pentagon intervened -- is Raytheon's own pitch for HAVE STARE's capabilities. A page on the company Web site described it as "originally designed to collect intelligence data against ballistic missiles." Its accuracy, Raytheon boasted, "exceeds the capabilities of all existing U.S. Air Force radars." The Web page didn't cite space debris. And earlier this year, the page disappeared.

Mark Day, a spokesman for Raytheon Electronic Systems, says the page was removed after the Air Force "directed that any information released on the subject must come from appropriate sources within the government." The Pentagon has restricted access to a Web page on a government-run site that referred to HAVE STARE as "another member of the early warning radar family."

Whatever the radar does at Vardo, geography points to Russia as a target for at least part of its function. Vardo looks out over the churning sea toward an area studded with sensitive military installations, including a fleet of Russian submarines carrying ballistic missiles based on the Kola Peninsula and Russia's missile test site at Plestesk. "Location, location," says Anatoly Dyakov, director of the Center for Arms Control at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.

Even before the cover flew off Globus II, Moscow was suspicious. First to sound a gruff warning was Red Star, the official newspaper of the Russian military, which early last year said the radar would spy on Russia and help America build an antimissile umbrella.

Later, Vladimir Dvorkin, a Russian military scientist, said on television that the radar would "undoubtedly harm our military security." He said it would be used to help America develop nonstrategic missile defenses to be deployed on planes and ships to "hit missiles as they take off like partridges." Vladimir Yakovlev, commander of Russia's strategic rocket force, last week said the Vardo device isn't part of any antiballistic missile system, but could collect information to help "develop and improve" such a system.

In an office decorated with a polished shell casing and model warplanes, the chairman of Norway's parliamentary defense committee dismisses Moscow's charges. "We've had Russian dogs barking at us since World War II," says Hans Rosjorde. Snooping on Russia, he says, keeps Norway and NATO safe.

Vardo, too, took Russia's first rhetorical salvos in stride. Some residents wanted to dangle lights on the storm-stripped dish and make it the centerpiece of celebrations on New Year's Eve: After being turned to face the sky, it resembled a giant champagne glass.

But Vardo began to fret after a left-wing legislator in Oslo and the media claimed the town risked radiation and could become a target for Russian nuclear attack in the event of war. Norwegian television crews and politicians trekked north to ask questions.

Hermod Larsen, Vardo's mayor, was continually quizzed in cafes by anxious residents and decided "we had to calm people down." He summoned the local council to endorse a reassuring statement and had it read on local radio. "Of course, this radar does more than study space garbage, but so what?" he says.

There is a basis for concern about the scope of Vardo's mission. Theodore Postol, an expert on missile-related issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has analyzed some of the radar's technical features and says it could be used to provide so-called signature data -- the "fingerprints" of Russian ballistic missiles and warheads. A fingerprint archive would help overcome a big obstacle to development of a missile shield: distinguishing between real warheads and decoys.

In testimony before the House national security committee in June 1996, Rear Adm. Richard D. West, then acting director of the ballistic missile-defense organization, the agency coordinating missile defense, referred to HAVE STARE as one of two types of "existing forward-based radars" that could "if needed ... also be used to support" the national missile defense. There is only one HAVE STARE radar in existence, the one in Norway.

Mr. Rykkin says that whatever possible tasks the U.S. military may have once envisaged for HAVE STARE, its agreement with Norway precludes any such role. Vardo, he says, will perform no fingerprinting or early-warning tasks and will mainly serve Norway's own space-related research and the U.S. space-surveillance network, a chain of sensors around the world.

Information on space debris and satellites collected at Vardo, Mr. Rykkin says, will be monitored by Norwegian personnel and then released to the U.S. Space Command's Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, Colo. If the U.S. decides to deploy a missile-defense system, the Colorado complex will also house the system's command and control facilities.

The technical debate leaves Vardo cold. Teachers at the local school mutter about "the hush-hush" but don't follow the arcana of arms control. Vardo's only hotel is happy to have all the extra business the controversy has brought. The mayor tells people to think of the radar as an airplane: "Like a pilot in the cockpit, people who work there value their lives. They wouldn't be there if it was dangerous."

Amid all the arguments over space, warheads and high-tech espionage, a more down-to-earth issue preoccupies a group of engineers now helping to repair the damage of last winter's storm: replacing metal bolts to make sure the new cover they put on doesn't blow off, too.

Neil King Jr. contributed to this article.

Copyright The Wall Street Journal


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