New President May Impact Missile System Priority

The fifth of a five-part series.

Airborne laser component of the U.S. missile defense system i i

A modified Boeing 747 is part of the airborne laser component of the U.S. missile defense system. U.S. Missile Defense Agency hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Missile Defense Agency
Airborne laser component of the U.S. missile defense system

A modified Boeing 747 is part of the airborne laser component of the U.S. missile defense system.

U.S. Missile Defense Agency

About The Series

Since 2002, the Bush administration has spent more than $60 billion deploying a new defense program that has received little attention — the anti-missile defense system.

A complex system including missile interceptors and radar equipment located on U.S. soil and aboard warships, U.S. missile defense is set to go global with the involvement of both European and Asian allies. Yet critics say much of this system will not work in the event of an actual attack.

Find all the stories in the series here.

Kinetic Energy Interceptor i i

The Kinetic Energy Interceptor's Stage 1 rocket was successfully ignited during a test burn on Sept. 6, 2007. This component of the missile defense system aims to destroy intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles. U.S. Missile Defense Agency hide caption

itoggle caption U.S. Missile Defense Agency
Kinetic Energy Interceptor

The Kinetic Energy Interceptor's Stage 1 rocket was successfully ignited during a test burn on Sept. 6, 2007. This component of the missile defense system aims to destroy intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles.

U.S. Missile Defense Agency

The Missile Defense Agency at the Pentagon imagines a future where the threat from hostile ballistic missile attacks is growing, but so is the arsenal of weapons to neutralize it.

A video from the agency's Web site tells the story.

"Americans and their friends abroad, striving day and night, side by side, to meet the challenge to protect fellow countrymen and secure liberty worldwide," the video says.

"We believe that the threat that is represented by ballistic missiles is clear and present today and will continue to grow in the future, and while the system that we are developing and that we are fielding is the first step down this path, it is certainly not the last," Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, says in the video.

New Weapons Systems

When Obering talks about the future of missile defense, he is often talking about new weapons for the system. Weapons like the airborne laser, a modified 747 equipped with two high-energy lasers designed to destroy a hostile missile shortly after launch; the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a much faster missile designed to attack hostile missiles also in the early phases of flight; or the multiple kill vehicle — an interceptor that could deploy several kill vehicles to hit multiple hostile warheads or, Obering says, help to overcome the problem of decoys.

"Today we have a single kill vehicle on each one of our interceptors," Obering says. "In the future, we will have many kill vehicles on one interceptor, and that will allow us to handle the more complex threats."

Critics of the Missile Defense Agency say the multiple kill vehicle is an admission that today's interceptors are not sophisticated enough to overcome decoys.

"The Missile Defense Agency knows that the current approach cannot be relied upon, and so they're developing this multiple kill vehicle, hoping that that will work," says Philip Coyle, an adviser at the Center for Defense Information. "The concept behind it is — it's sort of like a shotgun. Instead of having a single kill vehicle, you have half a dozen or perhaps more. The problem with the development is that each one needs propulsion systems so that it can turn and steer. All of this takes weight. It's hard to get many of them on the interceptor."

All of these components of missile defense are in development — not yet fully tested, let alone deployed and in operation.

Questions Over Funding

This raises key questions about the future budget for missile defense. The Bush administration has spent about $60 billion to deploy missile defenses so far — that's on top of another $60 billion or so the U.S. spent before President Bush took office.

Obering has proposed spending another approximately $60 billion over the next five years to keep the deployed system functioning and to fund new weapons development.

"We are spending $4.5 [billion] to $5 billion now just on fielding and containment and testing," Obering says. "That's not any advance for new development."

But it is far from clear that the next president and the next Congress will want to continue spending for missile defense at current levels, with the enormous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the crisis in the credit markets.

"I think the missile defense bubble is about to burst," says Joe Cirincione, a longtime critic of missile defense and president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation with goals aimed at preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons worldwide.

"As the overall budget shrinks, missile defense programs are the first to go," Cirincione says. "Why? Because the Joint Chiefs have never valued them. They would rather spend the hard-earned national defense dollars on ships and planes and tanks — things that really matter. So, I think you're going to see the high-water mark of missile defense spending this year and you're going to see declines no matter who's president in the next administration, back down to something like $5 billion a year."

That's still a significant amount of money, a clear indication that missile defense will remain a controversial issue in the U.S. for years to come.

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