The US has experimented with an aircraft - Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 - at its top speed it could travel the 17,000 kilometres between London and Sydney in about 49 minutes. Last week the glider went out of control and came down somewhere in the vicinity of Marshall Islands where a Minuteman missile warhead blew it up on re-entry over Marshall Islands. It raises many safety issues for Marshall Islands.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Giff Johnson, Marshall Islands correspondent
JOHNSON: People in the Marshall Islands know very little other than what is publicly released by the Defence Department on these aborted tests and interestingly on the Minuteman missile re-entry vehicle. It's a dummy warhead that they target on Kwajalein Atoll on the Marshall Islands. It said that it was blown up northeast of Kwajalein Atoll. Well the interesting thing if you look at a map northeast of Kwajalein Atoll, there's a bunch of inhabited islands, so we haven't heard anything more the defence department, people are asking questions, but it's a concern as people start to hear about more of these missions being aborted near the Marshall Islands.
COUTTS: Was it actually launched from Kwajalein or Johnson?
JOHNSON: No, these shots are launched from Vandenberg air force base, in California and they're targeted on Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands and Kwajalein is a major missile testing facility. These are not missile tests that involve intercepts. The Minuteman was just a test of the Minuteman re-entry vehicle to see if it was working and the glider, of course, is this hypersonic glider is a new weapon system that they're developing. So they're targeted out here and sometimes there are launches from Kwajalein trying to intercept incoming missiles.
COUTTS: Alright. Well the safety issues, there are a number of them. How do you see that?
JOHNSON: Well, we need to get more information from these US defence department agencies and if they're acknowledging that re-entry vehicles are being destroyed within minutes of splashdown in the Marshall Islands and in the vicinity of inhabited islands. It doesn't do much for peoples confidence to have no information about what's going on and there's very little released publicly by the air force or in this case, the Hypersonic glider from Darpa, the defence department research agency. So yeah, the Kwajalein elected senators in the parliament here are raising concern about what islands are in the hazard zone and obviously anything that's targeted on Kwajalein is coming across inhabited islands and, of course, Kwajalein is inhabited too, not only by Marshall Islanders, but by Americans and so there's just a lot of questions about where this debris is going. And then with the glider, it stopped communicating with home-base, so as far as we know, nobody knows where it went.
COUTTS: Now, someone, even though it's moving so fast, you're not likely to see it, but someone along the coastline is going to see something. So no one's picked up a piece of debris from it?
JOHNSON: Not as far as I know, but there are people who live on very remote islands with very little technology for communicating and so it's possible that people could see something and not even know that there was a test happening and we've got islands that don't have telephones, don't have internet, and don't even have a radio communication. So people could see something and just not know what it is.
COUTTS: So the whole thing is treated by the military with utmost secrecy, so the civilian contingency get no information whatsoever?
JOHNSON: Well, the defence department releases a statement before and after each test and they acknowledge when it's successful or when it's been aborted and they give a few details. But the details in terms of the population in the Marshall Islands, where the whole point of why these missiles are targeted out here is two fold. One is it's four thousand miles, so it gives them a good flight test from California for a long range missile re-entry vehicle, but also face it, there aren't very many people out here and the Americans wouldn't feel too happy if these missiles were targeted on California, so that's part of the reason they're doing it, just like the Bikini tests in the 40s and the 50s. There just weren't very many people out here and the problem though the 60,000 or 50,000 people who are here would probably like to get a little more information about where these bits and pieces are being blown up.
COUTTS: How often would tests like this be conducted?
JOHNSON: There's been quite a bit of activity at Kwajalein in the last few months. They've already had a couple of missile test missions and then this hypersonic glider and in a brief conversation I had with the missile range commander a couple of weeks ago. He said this upcoming year is going to be quite busy. So I think normally, maybe a test every quarter something like that, may be three or four a year. But it seems like they've been more this year and the pace has been stepped up at Kwajalein.
COUTTS: Did the commander actually explain to you why it will be busy next year?
JOHNSON: I don't have details on that, but I do know that what's been going on with the missile range is that after installation of an underwater fibre optic cable to Kwajalein, the army has been able to remote much of its command and control work on the missile testing to Huntsville, Alabama, and so it's a lot less expensive for people to run tests missions, because they don't have to send everybody out to Kwajalein now. They can just sit in the control room in the US and have real time data on all the missile tests and this is a big selling point for getting customers to use the ranges that the cost is reduced. So presumably that has something to do with it.
COUTTS: Well, with testing like the Falcon Hypersonic technology vehicle to the glider that's capable of moving 17,000 kilometres in about 49 minutes and all the other tests that you're talking about, presumably a lot of it are nuclear powered. Is there any sort of discussion about what's happening with the environment, are you noticing the marine environment at all, having any impact on it?
JOHNSON: These are not nuclear powered, but the re-entry vehicles contain what's known as depleted uranium in order to make them simulate a real nuclear warhead for the purpose of missile defence and radar telemetry discrimination, because the whole issue of missile defence is can they pick a real warhead out of all the junk that an enemy would presumably throw up to confuse the radar. So yes, depleted uranium is in the re-entry vehicles, they land, they hit, explode into the lagoon or into the ocean. I mean there must be some contamination, but there's never that I'm aware of been any published studies about contamination, although I know that Kwajalein senators have raised the environmental issue from time to time about the depleted uranium and what hazard it causes, but as far as I know, the army has always maintained that there's no threat from it.