Full Speed Ahead on Missile Defense

June 13 marked a significant milestone in America's decades-long quest to develop a defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles. On that day, the United States formally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, clearing the way for the first time in 30 years for the Bush administration to pursue a missile defense system as aggressively as it chooses, by whatever means it deems necessary.

The administration has left little doubt that it intends to take full advantage of that newfound flexibility. Within days of the treaty's demise, the Pentagon started construction at Fort Greely, Alaska, of six missile silos to house interceptors. Initially planned as a test bed for the missile defense system, the Fort Greely site could become operational in the future and in all likelihood will be part of a land-based system designed to knock missiles out of space in the middle of their trajectory toward the United States. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made no secret of his intention to pursue a much more comprehensive anti-missile defense system that would include sea-based systems for attacking missiles in their relatively vulnerable "boost phase" and eventually spaced-based systems for targeting missiles in all stages of flight.

To develop such a complex system as quickly as possible, Rumsfeld has granted the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency extraordinary latitude to bypass traditional acquisition procedures, cost projections and testing milestones. In recent months, for example, the Pentagon has stopped sending Congress detailed cost estimates and timetables for the missile defense program, and has limited media access to details about tests of the systems involved. After missing two out of its first three intercept attempts during 2000 and 2001, the anti-missile system has scored successful hits on all three of its latest attempts. The most recent came in June.

Rumsfeld's more aggressive schedule comes with added costs and risks. In its fiscal 2003 budget, the Bush administration requested $7.8 billion for missile defense, almost 50 percent more than the Clinton administration spent on the program in fiscal 2001. That figure includes funding for development of a national missile defense system to protect the United States ($5.1 billion), theater missile defense systems to shield forward-deployed troops ($935 million), and associated sensors ($373 million). The Pentagon projects that overall spending on ballistic missile defense will need to increase to $11.1 billion by fiscal 2007.

Given the immense amount of money involved in missile defense, Congress is unlikely to continue approving expenditures without more detailed information about the program's progress. In its fiscal 2003 defense authorization bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee required the Defense Department to provide development schedules, cost estimates and acquisition timetables for several programs under the missile defense umbrella. The bill also would require the director of the Pentagon's Office of Test and Evaluation to conduct annual operational assessments of the programs.

"The potentially high cost of pursuing a multi-layered national missile defense system does not necessarily mean that the administration's plans are unaffordable," concluded a recent report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "However, doing so may make it difficult for the administration to fund other new initiatives, including efforts aimed at transforming various elements of the U.S. military."

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