- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

The recently reported recommendation of the Defense Science Board to narrow the focus of the administration's approach to ballistic missile defense is right on target.

The national missile defense program has suffered since its inception from being spread too thin, trying to develop all kinds of technologies. As a result, the program has lacked a clear focus on the primary goal of deploying a defense of the nation.

The attempt to do research and development in a variety of different technologies has dispersed the available funds, sometimes slowing development of systems that could be deployed in the near term. The ABM treaty compounded the problem by blocking realistic testing and preventing any technology from getting close to deployment.

In the early years of the program, it was important to review all kinds of technologies to see which held the most promise. As time went on, such ideas as particle beam weapons and laser weapons bouncing off mirrors in space were dropped in favor of things that could be developed more quickly.

The key technology that emerged after years of research and development was hit-to-kill. The idea of striking a target and destroying it by impact is not new, but in the 1980s and 1990s new high-speed computers, increasingly sensitive seekers, and the ability to miniaturize everything, finally made it a reality.

It became possible to put a small hit-to-kill device on the front end of an interceptor missile, launch it into space, and then have its own engine and on-board computer send it unerringly to strike and destroy the target missile's warhead.

The value of this technology became apparent during the Gulf war when Patriot PAC-2 interceptors exploded near incoming missiles but failed to destroy their warheads. Facing an Iraq that had succeeded in producing chemical weapon warheads and was producing anthrax and other biologicals, it became a high priority at the Pentagon to find a better way to stop such weapons. A hit-to-kill interceptor solves the problem by striking a warhead at such high speed that its contents, whether chemical, biological, or nuclear, are destroyed in a ball of fire.

The demonstrated ability of hit-to-kill interceptors to strike their targets at very high speed (the land-based midcourse system endorsed by the Defense Science Board has achieved three intercepts in a row) made it the technology of choice for both regional and national missile defense. Today, all major missile defense weapons under development by the U.S., land-based and sea-based, are armed with hit-to-kill technology.

The Defense Science Board endorses the missile defense weapon systems that will use this technology on ground-based interceptors in Alaska and on Aegis cruisers, and suggests the administration decide on an architecture leading to their deployment. The board reportedly also urges development of a faster interceptor for sea-based missile defenses so they can play a greater role in national defense.

The goal is to put operational defenses in place. The midcourse missile defense being built in Alaska should advance from a test facility with five interceptors to a deployed national missile defense with 100 or more. And the work needed to give sea-based defenses at least some continental defense capability should be accelerated. Other technologies that are far in the future, such as a space-based laser, would better be deferred to allow available funds to be spent on things that can be deployed in the next few years.

What the missile defense program needs now is an architecture with clear objectives for the companies and engineers working on various parts of the effort. The architecture should integrate and focus their work on the goal of a deployed missile defense for the nation that can be grown into a worldwide missile defense network.

Defining the architecture does not preclude future changes. The idea is to deploy the best existing technologies and then improve or add to them in block upgrades as the chosen technologies mature and others become deployable. It is reasonable to assume that missiles will be around a long time, and so will missile defenses. The initial national missile defense can gradually become a worldwide, layered missile defense network to protect not only the nation, but also its friends, allies, and forces overseas.

What is most important is to get something deployed that can protect the country as soon as possible, but which can be improved and enhanced in the future.

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