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All this week on Morning Edition, we've been hearing about the U.S. missile-defense system. There are ground-based interceptors in Alaska, there are missiles on ships poised to shoot down missiles, and there are Russian objections to parts of the program in Europe. Today, we are going to look at the future of missile defense, which is likely to be just as controversial and just as expensive as its past. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster.

MIKE SHUSTER: The Missile Defense Agency at the Pentagon imagines a future where the threat from hostile ballistic-missile attack is growing, but so is the arsenal of weapons to neutralize it. Witness this video from the agency's website.

(Soundbite of Missile Defense Agency ad)

Unidentified Man: Americans and their friends abroad, striving day and night, side by side, to meet the challenge to protect fellow countrymen and secure liberty worldwide.

Lieutenant General HENRY OBERING (Director, U.S. Missile Defense Agency): 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.

SHUSTER: That's Lieutenant General Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency. When Obering talks about the future of missile defense, he is often talking about new weapons for the system, like the airborne laser, a modified 747 equipped with a two high-energy lasers designed to destroy a hostile missile shortly after launch, or 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 General Obering says, help to overcome the problem of decoys.

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

SHUSTER: 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. Philip Coyle is an adviser at the Center for Defense Information.

Mr. PHILIP COYLE (Senior Adviser, Center for Defense Information): 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. 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. It's hard to get many of them on the interceptor.

SHUSTER: All of these components of missile defense are in development, not yet fully tested, let alone deployed and in operation. 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 the U.S. spent before President Bush took office. General Obering has proposed spending another $60 billion or so over the next five years to keep the deployed system functioning and fund new weapons development.

Lt. Gen. OBERING: We are spending four and a half to five billion dollars a year now just on fielding and sustainment and testing. That's not any advance for new development.

SHUSTER: 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, what with the enormous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the crisis in the credit markets.

Mr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (President, Ploughshares Fund): I think the missile-defense bubble is about to burst.

SHUSTER: Joe Cirincione is a longtime critic of missile defense and president of the Ploughshares Fund.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: As the overall budget shrinks, missile-defense programs are the first to go. 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.

SHUSTER: 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. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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