As reports circulate that Washington is ramping up short- and medium-range missile defense in the Persian Gulf — a move thought to put pressure on an increasingly recalcitrant Iran — Vandenberg Air Force Base hosted the test launch of a long-range, Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missile at about 3:40 p.m. on Sunday. As the organization responsible for research, development, and acquisition for missile defense, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has run 13 GBI tests prior to Sunday’s, eight of which successfully intercepted incoming target missiles fired from across the Pacific.
While the launch went off without a hitch, a problem with the sea-based X-band radar caused the GBI to miss its target. Officials said that only one radar station was used for the test; the test itself cost $125 million. The launch, scheduled for few weeks ago, had been cancelled due a series of storms that racked much of the state for nearly a week. An MDA spokesman explained that running the test launch in inclement weather reduces the reliability of the missile system’s remotely-operated, self-destruct mechanism, a feature he said is crucial for safety during testing scenarios.
On the ground outside of Vandenberg’s main gates, there was little about the sunny weather to suggest that any problem had occurred with the missile launch.
But, there was a problem of a different sort brewing: Shortly after 1:00 p.m., eleven protesters showed up at the well-established protesting spot next to the base’s main entrance, holding signs that opposed the missile defense program. According to MacGregor Eddy, one of the protest organizers, the group had complied with base rules on protests. Two weeks’ ahead of time, they had purportedly notified base officials of their intent to protest. Once they got there, everyone allegedly stayed on the outside of a thick, green line painted on the sidewalk — a well-established demarcation boundary that has led to numerous protester arrests in the past.
However, when base security officers came out to request that all eleven protesters show government-issued identification, the trouble began. Eight of them refused, and after being given a few minutes to comply with the directive, were put in plastic handcuffs and detained in the base visitors’ center a short distance away. “We weren’t even cheering — we were quietly holding signs,” said Scott Fina, one of the detained protesters. “They knew our group and they knew we were orderly people.” Eddy and Dennis Apel — who spent two months in federal prison after drizzling his own blood on Vandenberg’s entrance sign in protest of the Iraq War in 2003 — had already been issued letters banning them from base property during previous protests, and were charged with trespassing. The other six were charged with violation of a security regulation, which carries the possibility of a $5,000 fine and up to a year in prison.
Of the remaining three participants in the protest, one volunteered to show identification, and the other two left. Judy Evered, an octogenarian, complained that military police treated her roughly when she was handcuffed, causing shoulder pain. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Milner, commander of Vandenberg’s 30th Security Forces Squadron, said that his staff called medical professionals who then transported Evered to Lompoc Hospital. Another protestor, Mary Becker, said that over the past few months, more aggressive behavior by Vandenberg’s security forces has been intimidating. “I’ve been going to Vandenberg once a month for the past three years,” she said. “It’s like [base authorities] just want to get rid of us.”
Aside from their opposition to the missile defense test taking place, Eddy and others contended that their First and Fourth Amendment Rights were violated as a result of the ID checks and subsequent disintegration of the protest. Lt. Col. Milner countered that the ID regulation was clearly spelled out in a rule sheet sent to protest organizers long before the launch. “Our purpose here is to protect American’s rights, and one of those is the right to protest,” he said, adding that he sees neither the protests nor the arrests as problems. “We’re not against them coming out and protesting, we just want them to follow the rules while they’re here.”
During an actual operational scenario, said MDA spokesman Richard Lehner, a variety of radar stations would be used to guide a GBI toward its target, including a sea-based, X-band radar in the Pacific Ocean, portable X-band units in Japan and Israel, and conventional early warning radar stations in Alaska, California, the United Kingdom, and Greenland which have been outfitted with special purpose missile defense sensors. There are currently 24 GBIs at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and three at Vandenberg, but Lehner said that more than two-thirds of the missile defense budget — which stands at $7.7 billion for 2010 — is spent on short- and medium-range missile defense batteries.
A recent public discussion by current US Central Command leader General David Petraeus indicated that in addition to missile batteries being placed at classified locations around the Middle East, Aegis missile cruisers are also being kept on constant patrol in the Persian Gulf. While Iran possesses a long-range missile (like the Shahab 3, against which short- and medium-range defense missiles would be ineffective), US military commanders and analysts have expressed doubt that they have the technology to deploy nuclear warheads on that platform.