On July 15, the bipartisan Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States delivered a sobering report to Congress. The threat of missile attack "is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly" than has been reported by the intelligence community, the commission concluded. What's more, the United States may have little or no warning before hostile nations deploy such missiles. Six days later, Iran for the first time successfully tested the Shahab-3, a medium-range missile capable of reaching Israel and U.S. troops deployed in the Persian Gulf region.

Then, a few weeks later, North Korea surprised the world when it successfully launched a three-stage, medium-range Taepo Dong missile over Japan. The missile demonstrated technology far more advanced than intelligence analysts had thought possible of the secretive North Korean regime. The developments potentially give North Korea the capability of striking targets throughout Asia and beyond.

Concerns about the proliferation of missile technology and the increasing sophistication of weapons deployed by unfriendly nations are compounded by the fact that the United States has no reliable way to defend against missiles launched at the continental United States or at troops deployed overseas.

The nine-member commission was chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and included former CIA Director James Woolsey, physicist and longtime government technical adviser Richard Garwin and retired Air Force Gen. Lee Butler, formerly the commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command. The panel examined only the threat posed by countries thought to be hostile, or potentially hostile, to U.S. interests.

"As our work went forward, it became increasingly clear to us that nations about which the U.S. has reason to be concerned are exploiting a dramatically transformed international security environment," the commission found. "That environment provides an ever-widening access to technology, information and expertise that can be and is used to speed both the development and deployment of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. It can also be used to develop denial and deception techniques that seek to impede U.S. intelligence gathering about the development and deployment programs of those nations."

The commission's warnings found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill, particularly among some Republicans who believe the Clinton administration and the Pentagon are not acting with the urgency they believe is needed to develop a viable defense against the growing threat.

Pentagon officials also are concerned about the vulnerability to missile attack, but caution that rushing technology that is not ready for development is counterproductive and consumes scarce resources.

A case in point is the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system being developed by Lockheed Martin to protect ground troops on the battlefield. Despite the $4 billion the Pentagon has spent on the program since 1992, THAAD has so far failed to intercept any incoming target missiles during each of five tests. A sixth test scheduled for this month was postponed until early next year due to a malfunctioning component in the interceptor missile. Many of the problems encountered in the THAAD system are blamed on the program's compressed testing and development schedule, which was adopted to get the system into production as quickly as possible.

Call To Action

Missile defense systems under development by the Pentagon fall into two broad categories. Theater missile defense programs, such as THAAD, are designed to protect troops on the battlefield or groups of U.S. personnel overseas. The national missile defense program, a scaled-back version of President Reagan's "Star Wars" vision of a protective shield over the United States, is meant to guard the continental United States from a limited missile attack or from the unintentional launch of Chinese or Russian missiles. The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) manages both national and theater missile defense programs, which rely on "hit-to-kill" interceptions of incoming missiles.

All of the nations whose weapons programs the Rumsfeld Commission examined are developing long-range ballistic missiles that could be armed with biological or chemical weapons. In addition, these countries have access to or are pursuing nuclear technology, knowledge of which is widespread, the commission found.

The commission's findings are a call to action, says Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The commission's report suggests that the Clinton administration's plans for national missile defense are inadequate, both in the planning and development phases, he says.

"What is not needed, however, is a rush to immediate deployment," Krepinevich says. "You can only rush technology so fast." Instead, he argues, a greater emphasis on developing and testing a variety of missile defense architectures--including prototyping competing system alternatives--is needed to ensure the United States is doing everything it can to develop an effective system.

Krepinevich says that information technology is evolving so rapidly that it would be a mistake for the Pentagon to commit to fielding a particular technology before it is really necessary, thereby locking itself into a system that would no doubt drain scarce resources away from further research and development.

However, the Pentagon should do everything possible to plan for rapid deployment once a commitment is made, he says. "Given that the threat could manifest itself with little warning, what is also needed is greater attention to how such defenses, if developed, can be deployed in far less time than the three years planned for by the administration," he says.

Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre is adamant the Pentagon is doing everything it can to meet the challenge posed by the missile threat, saying officials are moving as fast as technology developments will allow. Neither more money nor relief from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union, which some Republicans say is stalling efforts, would do much if anything to speed up development of missile defense weapons, he says.

"This is as close as we can get in the Department of Defense to a Manhattan Project," Hamre told the Senate Armed Services Committee in October, referring to the massive effort the United States undertook to create the atomic bomb. "I mean, we are pushing this very fast. And there's considerable risk associated with it."

Technology Risks

In 1996, the administration announced a plan for developing the technology for a limited national missile defense system by the year 2000, and then, if deemed necessary, building the system over the next three years. It was known as the 3+3 plan: three years to develop and three years to field the system. The highly compressed schedule allows for only limited testing and has been criticized as unrealistic.

Last year, after a series of flight test failures and other problems in both the national and theater missile defense programs, the directors of the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation office; the Test, Systems Engineering and Evaluation office; and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization together asked the Institute for Defense Analysis to review the programs and recommend improvements.

Led by retired Air Force Gen. Larry Welch, the Panel on Reducing Risk in Ballistic Missile Defense Flight Test Programs reported in February that the Pentagon's strategy of accepting a high level of risk to shorten schedule time has been counterproductive.

"The virtually universal experience of the study group members has been that high technical risk is not likely to accelerate fielded capability. It is far more likely to cause program slips, increased costs and even program failures," the panel wrote.

The panel recommended that the Pentagon restructure its programs more realistically and ensure time to conduct more rigorous ground testing. Simply adding more money to missile defense programs won't necessarily help either, the panel concluded, because there is a limit to what money can do to accelerate the missile defense effort. The "hit-to-kill" technology used in missile defense systems has proved much more difficult to develop than analysts had initially thought, the panel found.

The General Accounting Office noted in a June report that developing and deploying a national missile defense system in the six years allotted under the 3+3 plan is highly ambitious given the Defense Department's history in acquiring other weapons systems.

Other systems comparable in terms of complexity typically take at least twice that long to develop, GAO noted. "Accomplishing all of the required contracting, development, integration, and testing planned before the initial decision point in fiscal year 2000 is, and will continue to be, high risk."

With added funding, BMDO has been able to nearly double the number of integrated ground tests in the national missile defense system and add one or more flight tests, depending on when a deployment decision is made. Even so, the schedule is hardly robust. When the Pentagon developed the Safeguard missile defense system in the 1970s, the program included 111 flight tests, compared with the 16 planned for the national missile defense program through the end of 2003, the earliest planned deployment date.

"This is not normally the way we would do an acquisition program," Air Force Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles, director of BMDO, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in October. The compressed schedule is largely the result of pressure from Congress to deploy a missile defense system as soon as possible. Republicans have long criticized the Clinton administration for what they term its "wait and see" attitude regarding missile defense. Twice this year, Republican initiatives to require deployment of a national missile defense system as soon the technology is ready have failed in the Senate by just one vote.

In an omnibus spending bill passed in October, Congress added $1 billion to the Pentagon's budget to enhance testing and reduce risk in missile defense programs. Congress also directed Defense Secretary William Cohen to submit a plan for using the additional funds, which do not all have to be spent in 1999, says BMDO spokesman Rick Lehner.

Administration and Pentagon officials have argued that it is premature to commit to building a national missile defense system at this time. Because the technology is not yet ready and the threat is far enough in the future, it is wiser to continue research and development before committing to full-scale deployment of a system, they say.

While some administration officials believe the United States will have ample warning before the threat is imminent, Hamre conceded the North Korean missile launch earlier this year was a shock. "I think everyone in the intelligence community would tell you, we were surprised by the Taepo Dong launch," Hamre said.

The debate is not limited to the national missile defense program, either. When some reports appeared in the press this summer suggesting that the Pentagon was considering aborting the THAAD program after the fifth failed flight test, Congressional Republicans made clear they would not tolerate scrapping the beleaguered theater defense program.

In a Sept. 3 letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen, 14 Republican senators pressed for continued support for THAAD, after Lyles told defense reporters BMDO might consider an alternative to the program or delay testing for as long as two years until quality assurance measures could be taken.

In the October Senate Armed Services committee hearing on missile defense, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., told Lyles and Hamre, "There may come a time when canceling this program becomes our only choice, but with the accelerating proliferation of medium- and long-range missiles, this must be our last resort. We should stop distracting ourselves and the contractor by all this talk about cancellation and get on with the test program."

"It is high risk, but we're pressing ahead," Hamre assured the senators.

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