U.S. Ponders Sea-Based Missile Defense

Article excerpt

Navy system could save money-but the technology is still years away

The Clinton administration's plan to field a missile defense system to protect all 50 states may include a sea-based component. That option currently is being debated at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, but the outcome largely depends on whether a U.S.Russia anti-missile treaty can be changed or annulled.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, is proceeding with plans to develop a landbased missile defense system under the National Missile Defense (NMD) program. Congress recently approved legislation that mandates NMD deployment. Several Republican lawmakers-who have accused the administration of delaying the project-- want to field the system as soon as possible.

"A sea-based component might fit" into NMD, said John Harvey, deputy assistant defense secretary for nuclear policy and missile defense. A naval missile defense system, however, is not part of the current NMD plan and, further, would require a significant upgrade to its capabilities-in order to meet the NMD requirement for shooting down strategic ballistic missiles-Harvey told an audience at the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, a conservative think tank. Sea-based defense only would work as a "supplement" to the land-based NMD, he said. The Navy currently is developing a tactical missile defense system-called Navy Theater Wide-to counter tactical long-range missiles.

But, in order to fulfill the NMD role, Navy Theater Wide would require "major upgrades" involving the interceptor missile, Harvey said. Navy officials recently told Congress that, if the Theater Wide interceptor missile is upgraded to the Standard Missile-3 Block II configuration, it would meet NMD requirements. That improved interceptor, however, would not be available until 2005 or 2006. The Block II missile would shoot down enemy targets with the so-called LEAP kill vehicle, or lightweight exo-atmospheric projectile.

Currently the Navy is working on upgrades to the Standard Missile-2 Block 4A for short-range area defense, called Navy Area Wide. The Navy Area Wide program involves a modification to the Aegis air defense weapon system to defend against short- and medium-range tactical ballistic missiles. The system is scheduled to be deployed on Navy Aegis cruisers and destroyers by 2002.

Last month, the United States and Japan signed a memorandum of understanding on joint technology research for Navy Theater Wide ballistic missile defense. The two countries plan to conduct preliminary experiments that could lead to the technology selection for four missile sub-components of the Standard Missile-3: sensor, advanced kinetic warhead, second-stage propulsion and lightweight nose cone, said defense officials.

Naval Defense

For several years now, conservative groups have advocated the use of Navy warships as the foundation for a national missile defense. They claim this approach would save time and money. "By deploying a missite defense `first from the sea,' the United States could achieve immense cost savings and have effective protection against ballistic missiles fairly quickly," said a recent study by the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.

The sea-based option is cost-effective, said Frank J. Gaffney Jr., director of the Center for Security Policy, also a conservative organization in Washington. By deploying a ship-based NMD, he said, the United States would be taking advantage of its $50 billion investment in the fleet of warships currently equipped with the Aegis air-defense system. For about 5 percent more-about $2.5 billion to $3 billion-in "three to four years the Navy could deploy 650 fast, capable missile interceptors on 22 Aegis cruisers already patrolling the oceans and seas," he said.

The administration's budget for the NMD program during the next five years is about $11 billion. In fiscal year 2000, Congress authorized $867 million, a $30 million plus-up to the president's request. …