Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Report Boosts Sea-Based Missile Defenses Pentagon Says System Would Add Flexibility to Clinton Proposal

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Report Boosts Sea-Based Missile Defenses Pentagon Says System Would Add Flexibility to Clinton Proposal

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- A classified Pentagon report concludes that sea-based national missile defenses could be built with existing technology and would add both flexibility and firepower to the land-based system proposed by President Clinton, senior defense officials said Friday.

The report by the Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization will provide ammunition to critics of the Clinton system from all sides of the ideological spectrum who are eager to present credible alternatives to the administration's proposal. Top civilian officials at the Pentagon are holding up release of the report, which was due to go to Congress in declassified form six weeks ago, the officials said.

POLITICAL DEBATE

Clinton is scheduled to decide in early fall whether to begin construction of a land-based system that would start in 2005 with a force of 20 interceptor missiles based in Alaska, growing quickly to 100 interceptors two years later. Many conservatives, including George W. Bush, want a bigger national missile defense system that would include sea-based and, possibly, space-based weapons. On the other side are scientists and arms control advocates who fear that the damage to international agreements will vastly outweigh the benefits of the land-based system. Some argue for a small, sea-based force to provide protection in a crisis.

The upgraded versions of the Navy's existing Aegis air defense system already aboard 84 cruisers and destroyers, coupled with new, faster ship-launched missiles, could serve as a valuable supplement to a land-based system, the report concludes.

Without criticizing the sea-based alternatives, the administration argues that its plan is the best.

"Our proposed national missile defense system is the fastest, most affordable, most technologically mature approach," said P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Aegis-based systems, originally designed for short- and medium-range defenses, "are a high priority, but they are not capable of protecting all 50 states from strategic ballistic missiles," he said.

CLINTON PLAN UNDER FIRE

The report on the viability of sea-based defenses comes as the land-based system is under assault from a prominent defense expert, Theodore A. Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Postol came to Washington last week to challenge the Pentagon with scientific findings that, in his view, show a fatal technological flaw in the administration's plans.

Postol, who repeatedly has served as an analyst on ballistic missile issues for the military, argues that the "kill vehicles" launched into space by land-based interceptor missiles would not be able to distinguish incoming warheads from decoys. The Pentagon's own test data show that decoys and real warheads do not emit sufficiently distinct patterns of heat or light for infrared sensors aboard a kill vehicle to tell them apart, he said. …

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