Missile Defense Takes Center Stage

At no time in America's long quest to develop a defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles have the stars been in such positive alignment. President Bush has made the fielding of a missile defense system a cornerstone of his national security policy, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is one of the most forceful advocates of a missile defense system.

During a June meeting of NATO defense ministers, Rumsfeld said that the growing threat of nuclear blackmail from rogue nations armed with missiles was such that the Pentagon was going to move swiftly to develop and deploy an antiballistic missile system, perhaps even before testing is finished. In July, the Pentagon completed a successful test of a missile "kill vehicle," intercepting and destroying a mock warhead.

While the Bush administration's determination to proceed with an antiballistic missile system is good news for a host of defense technology companies involved in the program-including Boeing, TRW, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon-great uncertainty still surrounds the program. Major unanswered questions include the general configuration of the eventual system, its effectiveness and cost, and where the Pentagon will find the money to pay for it.

Last year, President Clinton nearly approved a limited, ground-based missile defense system made up of 100 missile interceptors based in Alaska, a new X-band radar facility on an Alaskan island and a sophisticated battle-management system linked to the United States' existing constellation of early-warning satellites. The Congressional Budget Office conservatively estimated the cost of that system at $30 billion. But two Washington think tanks, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted the system would cost roughly $70 billion.

Bush administration officials favor a much more expansive, multilayered system.

The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) has privately recommended that such a system include a sea-based component to augment the firepower of the land-based system. Theoretically, the sea-based system could be deployed aboard the Navy's Aegis ships, which could sail close to the shores of rogue nations and shoot down ICBMs shortly after launch. BMDO has estimated that a sea-based system would cost between $16 billion and $19 billion, but that does not include the costs of extra Aegis cruisers needed to devote to missile defense.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, estimates that an effective sea-based missile defense component would require 650 interceptors deployed on 22 Aegis ships. Because a single Aegis cruiser costs $1.4 billion to build, and roughly $55 million a year to operate, the price of a sea-based layer of missile defense could quickly tip the entire system beyond the $100 billion mark. With the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying they need an additional $50 billion annually just to modernize conventional forces, it is unclear where the Bush administration will find the additional funds for a layered antiballistic missile program.

"What you find with missile defense is that the level of uncertainty in terms of effectiveness and cost is dramatically higher than on traditional defense programs, because we've never really built one of these systems and used it in combat," says Steven Kosiak, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "There's very little practical experience to go on."

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