Consensus grows for `boost-phase' missile defense

Land- or ship-based system would kill rocket early in flight

July 18, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With the planned national missile defense system plagued by test failures and consumed by criticism, a sliver of consensus for an alternative system is emerging among former Reagan administration officials, peaceniks, conservative think tanks, MIT scientists and Russia's president.

They are all intrigued by the same questions: Can enemy missiles be shot down earlier in flight rather than in the more difficult realm of space? And could Navy ships manage the task?

The proposed U.S. shield calls for 100 Alaska-based interceptor missiles, which are designed to shoot down a missile in space. But a disparate group of voices is asking whether land-based systems overseas or ships poised off an adversary's shore could destroy a missile in its earliest "boost phase" while still in the atmosphere.

Such a defense would cost an estimated one-third less than the proposed $30 billion Alaska system. And it could use technology already in hand or in development. Moreover, in contrast to their resistance to the Alaska system, the Russians do not see a boost-phase proposal as threatening and are actually advocating one.

The mobility of Navy ships could be used to bring America's European allies under a defensive ballistic umbrella, proponents of the boost-phase al- ternative say.

"During the boost phase, missiles move relatively slowly," Richard Perle, an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, wrote in the New York Times last week. "They are easy to pinpoint."

Theodore A. Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former Pentagon adviser, argues vigorously that the interception of missiles in space is unworkable. But, Postol says, the boost-phase approach "makes tremendously more sense. All the technology is in hand."

The conservative Heritage Foundation has said that a boost-phase system that would be "more effective" than the Alaska system could be built before 2005, the year the first 20 Alaska interceptors are scheduled for deployment.

Joseph Cirincione of the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a critic of the Clinton administration's missile defense plan, suggests that Navy Aegis cruisers off North Korea could "put a cap" on a missile fired toward the United States. "It's definitely worth pursuing," he said.

In meetings with U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has said his nation could work with the United States on a boost-phase system that might protect not only the United States and Russia, but Europe as well. Putin opposes the plan for interceptor missiles in Alaska, saying that it would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bars national defense systems.

To be sure, a boost-phase system, based on land or sea, would be no panacea: It would require that interceptor missiles be positioned close to the launch site of an enemy missile. The challenge would be to deploy enough ships to suppress the threat or, in the case of a land-based boost-phase system, to know exactly where to build it.

A role for the Navy

Though the Navy now has no role in missile defense, the failure of the latest Pentagon interceptor test on July 7 has energized discussion about a boost-phase system and the part the Navy might play.

"We ought to be moving forward on a sea-based program," Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said the day after the test.

The Navy is testing other missile defenses - so-called area and theater-wide - that are designed to shoot down shorter-range missiles that could target U.S. forces and ships overseas. There have been a few tests - the most recent, just more than a week ago, was a failure - and several dozen more are planned. The area missile defense is scheduled to be ready by 2003; it would take until 2010 to deploy the more expansive theater-wide system, the Navy said.

Since 1996, the Navy has received $2.9 billion for missile defense. An additional $3.5 billion is budgeted by the Clinton administration through 2005, though the Navy says it has $1.5 billion less than it needs to proceed with the program as rapidly as possible.

The Navy is clearly enthralled with the idea of taking part in a national missile defense system. Two weeks ago, it created a new missile defense office and next month will send Congress a report on what role it can play in national missile defense.

"The evolutionary approach is very important," said Rear Adm. Michael Mullen, director of Navy surface warfare. "I think we're at the plate. We need to evolve the area and the Navy theater-wide programs."

Pentagon officials say the Navy will also outline how its theater effort can be upgraded to target intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Pros and cons

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