Critics question 'Star Wars' tech

While recent nuclear tests by developing nations have renewed calls for a second-generation "Stars Wars" program, critics last week charged that the United States' proposed missile defense program cannot be deployed fast enough and may not work once fielded.

The United States has been studying the technical aspects of deploying a National Missile Defense system, widely known as "Stars Wars," since the Reagan administration. NMD would consist of a series of networked ground-based radar systems and early-warning satellites designed to detect the launch of an intercontinental nuclear missile.

In February 1996, the Defense Department established the current NMD schedule, called "3+3" because it calls for the development of information technology needed to field a basic NMD by 1999 (1996 plus three years) and the ability to field a fully capable system within three years' notice of a potential missile launch capability by another country.

But a team of national security experts last week told Congress that the spread of advanced information technologies is helping foreign nations to develop missiles that are capable of striking the United States, possibly before NMD could be fielded.

A report to the House National Security Committee, "The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States," informed Congress that the threat posed by emerging technologies and capabilities "is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly" than the intelligence community had assessed in the past.

More than 20 nations, including Iran, Iraq, China and North Korea, have aggressively pursued the development of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them across great distances, security experts said.

Plans to deploy an initial NMD system face significant scheduling and technical risks that would make the system difficult to build by 2003, according to a report released last week by the General Accounting Office.

"Developing and deploying an NMD system in the six years allotted under the 3+3 program will be a significant challenge for DOD, given its past history with other weapons systems," GAO concluded.

According to GAO, more than $231 million has been added to NMD funding between fiscal 1996 and 1998 for systems integration services and research and development of the Battle Management, Command, Control and Communications system, which will guide interceptor rockets to take out incoming missiles in space before they reach the United States.

Approach Questioned

A DOD source familiar with NMD said the program is using antiquated software practices, adding that "there are approaches that can be used that the program is not [using]."

In addition, an independent study of the management practices of DOD's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization concluded that the organization's "schedule is ludicrous, and their testing is a joke," the source said.

Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.), chairman of the National Security Committee, called the commission's study a "wake-up call for all Americans" and an indication that the intelligence community and policy-makers have underestimated the threat posed by ballistic missiles.

"The commission's work reinforces my views on the urgency of committing to the deployment of missile defenses to protect the American people as soon as possible and hopefully before it's too late," Spence said.

Money and Tech Lacking

According to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), the procurement plan for an NMD system over the next five years will reduce funding for the program by $1 billion. The problems facing the program are that the money is not there and the technology is not mature, according to Weldon.

"How are we going to take care of the systems necessary...to defend against these threats?" Weldon asked during the hearing. "You can't get there from here."

DOD's NMD Joint Program Office estimates the cost to deploy an initial system by 2003 to be $8 billion.

Despite questions over the program's future funding, "the administration and Congress share a commitment to develop an effective National Missile Defense system," said Secretary of Defense William Cohen in a statement issued after the release of the commission's report. "No one should doubt our ability and determination to respond with decisive force to a missile attack."

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