Missile Defense Readies for Launch

With the war on global terror and conflict in Iraq garnering most of the headlines during the past year, the Bush administration's once-controversial effort to rapidly develop a national missile defense system has flown largely under the news media's radar. Yet the fiscal 2004 defense budget request includes $9.1 billion for ballistic missile defense programs, some $3.7 billion more than was appropriated in fiscal 2001. As the program edges nearer to an initial operating capability next year, the cost of actually fielding a large, layered missile defense system as envisioned by the administration is likely to grow significantly.

The Bush administration has been on a relative crash course to deploy an NMD system since withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in June 2000. At that time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld granted the Missile Defense Agency great latitude to bypass traditional acquisition procedures, cost projections and testing milestones. With North Korea developing long-range missiles and possibly nuclear weapons, the Pentagon argued it was in a race against time to field at least a rudimentary defense against a missile attack. With the much more aggressive schedule, however, comes added costs and risks. A General Accounting Office report on the program released in June, for instance, concluded that the Bush team's directive to field a system by 2004 has put the Missile Defense Agency "in danger of getting off track early, and introducing more risk into the missile defense effort over the long term."

As currently envisioned, the Pentagon will deploy a limited system of 10 land-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, by the end of fiscal 2004 to protect against a possible North Korean threat. By 2005, the plan is to add another 10 land-based interceptors and as many as 20 sea-based interceptors aboard three Navy Aegis air defense ships. Over the longer term, the administration plans to deploy a far larger and more layered NMD system that might include space-based interceptors.

To back those plans, the Pentagon hopes to devote $3.6 billion in fiscal 2004 for the Midcourse Defense Segment and $626 million for the Boost Defense Segment of the NMD system, along with $731 million for the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system, and $408 million for ballistic missile defense sensor programs. The Defense Department also has requested $713 million in 2004 for the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)-High program, which seeks to field a constellation of satellites for improved warning of ballistic missile launches and improved tracking of threatening missiles. The first launch of an SBIRS-High satellite is scheduled for 2007.

While the price tag for such an ambitious missile defense system is speculative at best, it will likely be the most expensive government project since the Apollo space program in the 1960s, which cost roughly $125 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. In 2002, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a three-site NMD system was likely to cost between $56 billion and $64 billion, and that a sea-based system would add another $43 billion to $55 billion. Adding a space-based component, the CBO estimated, could run the cost up by $56 billion to $68 billion.

"Consistent with its public pronouncements, the Bush administration has given top priority to the development of ballistic missile defense capabilities," Steven Kosiak, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wrote in a report on the 2004 Defense budget request. "Whatever the merits or shortcomings of the Bush administration's approach to [ballistic missile defense] on technical or strategic grounds, pursuing this course will likely require a substantial and sustained increase in funding."

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