Space-Based Missile Defense Needed to Counter Global Threats, Experts Say

By Kevin Mooney | September 23, 2008 | 5:46am EDT
( - Only a space-based missile defense system capable of intercepting and destroying incoming warheads in the “boost phase” (shortly after they are launched) can adequately protect America from emerging global threats, national security experts told a forum hosted the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008.
The ground- and sea-based systems deployed by the U.S. over the past few years are a promising start that can help guard against limited strikes from rogue powers such as North Korea and Iran, the Bush administration maintains.
However, the existing system is not equipped to handle the more sophisticated weaponry and countermeasures that Russia and China are now developing, warned Amb. Hank Cooper, chairman of the missile defense research organization High Frontier. 
Moreover, rogue states like Iran “who know how to play the game” also are testing new missile technology that could be deployed against the U.S. in unconventional ways, Cooper suggested. One nightmare scenario involves a ship-borne Scud missile that could be used to launch and explode a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere over the U.S., creating an electromagnetic pulse that would fry electronics, he warned. 
The most compelling program design to date stems from President Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI), which was first spelled out in a March 1983 address, Cooper noted. Going back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, plans called for small, highly mobile, space-based interceptors called “brilliant pebbles” that would be housed in protective cylinders and armed with the ability to intercept and destroy incoming missiles.
Former President George H.W. Bush endorsed the idea, although it ultimately was discontinued under the Clinton administration and has not been reactivated since that time, Cooper lamented.  
“We lost a generation of the best that came out of the SDI era in the early ‘90s and this has not been restored,” Cooper said. “This was an effective, affordable defense [concept] that could be used to stay ahead of countermeasures.”
While the idea of missile defense remains controversial inside the United States, the spread of missile technology and heightened availability of destructive weaponry has not gone unnoticed in parts of Asia and Europe, where policymakers now seem keen on the idea of employing a protective shield, Jeff Kueter, president of the George Marshall Institute, observed in response to a question from
“What we can see is a remarkable change in attitudes, particularly among some of our international partners, in recognizing the threat they face from ballistic missiles in their willingness to work with the U.S. to develop these capabilities,” he said.
Kueter credited Japan for working in close cooperation with the U.S. to help build up sea-based anti-missile systems on the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Vessels. He also said America’s European partners have been moving in a positive direction. As previously reported, there are now 26 NATO countries expressing formal support for missile defense.
The multi-layered anti-missile system now in place includes a mix of ground- and sea-based systems that have the ability to attack incoming ballistic weapons in their mid-course and terminal phases, Kueter noted.
Currently, the U.S. has 24 ground-based mid-course interceptors stationed in Alaska and California, with 30 planned for the end of this year, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA). There also are 12 Aegis ships equipped with the surveillance and tracking systems needed to perform mid-course missile defense missions at the present time, and an additional six are scheduled to become a part of the fleet over the next few months, the MDA reports.
Additional missile interceptors also will be installed as part of the Aegis system on 18 vessels in 2009, according to the MDA. The goal is to have 100 interceptors capable of engaging missiles in their terminal phase operating on Aegis before the end of next year, Kueter pointed out.
The European Site Initiative also has gained momentum recently. Current plans call for 10 U.S. ground-based interceptors to be installed in Poland where they will operate in conjunction with a radar system in the Czech Republic. The missile interceptors will be placed at the Redzikovo Polish military base close to the Baltic Sea in the northern part of the country.
Also on deck and ready for deployment in 2010 is the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. It can protect against both short- and medium-range missiles and can do so at longer ranges and higher altitudes than the interceptors now in use.
The THAAD system will complement existing anti-missile defenses – not replace them – adding another layer to America’s present multi-layered, anti-missile defense blanket.
These additional steps are effective as far as they go -- but, ultimately, there is no substitute for a space-based defensive layer that can target enemy warheads in their most vulnerable, earliest stages, Cooper argued.
“A space-interceptor system is actually multi-layered, in and of itself, because it has a global presence and is capable of intercepting a missile in the boost phase, or mid-course phase, or even in the high endo-atmosphere before the re-entry phase,” he said.
The boost phase is a “great time” to hit the target because the rocket is still burning, is easy to see, and can be destroyed before any decoys are deployed, Cooper observed.
In the absence of a space-based defense, there are two systems with boost phase implications currently in development: the Airborne Laser System and Multiple Kill Vehicles. The Airborne Laser is housed inside a modified 747, where it would target moving missiles. Multiple Kill Vehicles, which are much smaller versions of the current crop of anti-missile interceptors, are capable of launching several kill vehicles at one time.
“Neither system gets us where we need to be,” Kueter acknowledged in his talk.
Still, he does see value in pursuing both systems as a way of sharpening and honing technology that can be more effectively applied as part of a larger missile-defense architecture over the long term.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) expressed some reservations about the Airborne Laser in an interview with The system in its configuration could prove to be too costly and cumbersome to use in an efficient, effective way, he said.
“I’m not as big a fan of Airborne Laser as I am of the Aegis system, for example,” Kyl said. “What you’ve got to do [with the Airborne Laser] is to anticipate a potential threat, get your aircraft airborne, and be in position to laser it in time of combat. You might be able to do that, but, ordinarily, these strikes come out of the blue and, it seems to me, it would be awfully expensive with a limited ability to use it.”
Center for Security Policy President Frank Gaffney, who also spoke at the Heritage event, warned that there have been some indications that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) might cancel the Airborne Laser as president, even as he remains supportive of other missile defense initiatives.

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