- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

Recent press stories on the National Missile Defense (NMD) program all mention the "price tag" of $30 billion as though it were an outrageous expense. This emphasis on "high cost" often is used to criticize the NMD and other defense programs.

The Pentagon says it actually will cost $12.7 billion to build the planned national missile defense over the six years from 1999 to 2005. That includes flight-testing, development and procurement of 100 missile interceptors, construction of interceptor silos in Alaska, a battle management center, a new X-band radar, and the upgrade of five existing early warning radars.

A Pentagon spokesman said the total cost of designing, developing, producing, and operating the whole system from the inception of the program in 1991 to 2026 would be $30.2 billion. That covers 35 years, 10 of which (1991 through 2000) already have been paid for in past budgets. To satisfy its critics, the Pentagon is including all costs. But when you buy a house, do you include as part of the purchase price all the expenses of living in it and maintaining it for 30 years? Of course not.

Despite such overly inclusive accounting, the critics say $30 billion is too much. But is it? It averages less than $1 billion per year, out of an annual defense budget of nearly $300 billion and a total federal budget of $1.83 trillion. Considering that intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are the only direct threat to the United States against which there is no defense, and a growing number of countries, including some unfriendly and aggressive ones, are developing such missiles, an average of less than $1 billion a year to defend against them is not unreasonable.

The 2001 budget now before Congress contains $4.7 billion to develop missile defenses. But that includes money for several programs to develop and test improved theater missile defenses to protect U.S. forces overseas from the short-and medium-range missiles that currently threaten them. It also includes funds for research and development in futuristic technologies, such as airborne lasers and space-based lasers.

The part of that $4.7 billion actually applied to defending the country against ICBMs is only $1.9 billion, or less than 1 percent of the annual defense budget. But that still is more than the 35-year average of less than $1 billion a year for the NMD, because the program now is entering its most expensive phase, with flight tests under way and the buying of initial hardware to begin soon. Once the interceptors have been produced and the site built, the annual cost for operation and maintenance by the National Guard will be much less.

Critics of defense programs complain about spending in the billions because it sounds like so much. But when Microsoft stock tumbled recently, Bill Gates' personal holdings reportedly dropped $8 billion in one day. From that perspective, government spending of $1 billion to $2 billion a year to defend the country is not much. And the stakes are high. In a nuclear Pearl Harbor, a single weapon could kill millions.

Another criticism is that missile interceptors are not perfect and could miss, allowing a warhead through the shield. But the concern no longer is thousands of Soviet missiles. The threat now is one or a few missiles from such states as North Korea, or an accidental or unauthorized launch from Russia or China. And the plan is to fire at least two interceptors at each incoming warhead. The NMD will have enough range to fire two, look to see if there is an intercept, and if not, to fire two more. There will be a high probability of success.

Yet another criticism, recently repeated by the professional arms controllers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Union of Concerned Scientists, is that the NMD can be overcome by a variety of countermeasures. The academic arms controllers, who love to dream up hypothetical countermeasures, have been using this old argument for years, despite the Pentagon's insistence it is dealing with the issue, which is highly classified.

But the real value of a missile defense is deterrence. A defense will deter missile threats as well as a missile attack. It will diminish the value of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles that deliver them. What dictator will spend billions to acquire such weapons when there are effective defenses against them? Long-range ballistic missiles are spreading today because there are no defenses.

Considering the destruction a single nuclear missile could cause, and the damage to U.S. global interests from the existence of weapons against which we have no defense, a national missile defense that costs less than 1 percent of the defense budget per year is a real bargain.



James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to the Washington Times based in San Diego.

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