- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An unmarked, blacked-out, rusting hulk of a freighter slowly cruises off the East Coast. Outside U.S. territorial waters, standard cargo containers are prepositioned on deck with their doors ajar. Hidden inside are Scud ballistic missiles that can be fired within minutes.

No defense exists today to protect Americans against launches of this type involving short-range ballistic or cruise-missile attacks aimed at targets within a few hundred miles of the U.S. coast.

Armed with biological, chemical and nuclear or radiological warheads, these cheap and easily acquired weapons could cause massive death and destruction. Seventy-five percent of the population, 80 percent of U.S. economic wealth and 75 percent of domestic military bases fall within 200 miles of the vulnerable U.S. coastline.

Grasping the gravity of maritime missile threats, the House added $20 million in the new fiscal year appropriations bill to begin asymmetric missile defenses. The Senate Appropriations Committee has directed a study of offshore missile threats.

The September 11 commission warned us to look at what is coming next, not at the last attack. Increasingly, rogue nations and hostile groups are turning to unconventional, or asymmetric, weapons and methods to challenge U.S. military superiority. We need only recall the events of September 11, when ordinary passenger airliners were turned into cruise missiles in attacks against our population.

How real is this threat, and why act now? The Rumsfeld commission’s ballistic-missile proliferation report states: “a rogue state has done just that… they have fired a ballistic missile from a ship by peeling back the top, erecting it, firing it off, launching it a good distance, covering back up and moving the ship away.” North Korea is developing a ship-mounted ballistic missile that will have a range of at least 1,500 miles. Soviet-designed Scuds and Chinese Silkworm land-attack cruise-missile variants are widely available in international arms bazaars. A Scud missile can hit its target 200 miles away in four minutes. A cruise missile can cover the same distance in 11 minutes.

Federal agents were startled when opening a shipping container last year in the Port of San Pedro, Calif. Inside, they discovered a Scud missile and launcher. A Silicon Valley-based arms collector purchased this weapon on the open market.

Three years ago, Spanish naval forces, working with the U.S. Navy, boarded a North Korean freighter in the Indian Ocean. This unflagged ship, bound for Yemen, carried hidden Scud missiles and warheads. Legal constraints forced release of the vessel, allowing delivery of its deadly cargo.

Today, more than 125,000 merchant vessels fly flags of 195 different nations; 70 percent are always at sea. For the past three years, piracy has increased 22 percent annually. Al Qaeda does not have to own vessels to launch missile attacks; it can pirate them.

A missile-defense system proposed to counter these threats consists of several layers and uses ground- and ship-based missile interceptors and sensors — all of which now exist. The system is designed to be compatible with the Missile Defense Agency’s layered Ballistic Missile Defense System that is being deployed.

One system component, passive coherent location (PCL) sensors, is a promising technology that will help enable a responsive asymmetric missile defense. PCL technology relies on energy disturbances of FM radio and television signals in the atmosphere to detect and accurately track incoming missile targets.

With adequate funding, an effective defense could be developed and deployed between 2007 and 2013. Research and development would cost approximately $170 million, with initial acquisition costs for a system that can provide a defensive capability for the Northeast — from Washington to Boston — of about $1 billion. This initial capability could be expanded to protect the entire coast and the Great Lakes region, providing a highly effective defense against this class of threats and closing off a major vulnerability for our homeland.

Operational cost for a layered defensive system would be several hundred million dollars a year. If this seems like a high price, consider what is at stake should America’s enemies strike against our homeland again.

David A. Kier, a physicist, is vice president and managing director of missile defense at Lockheed Martin. He has served as a former CIA division chief in the technology applications group, deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office and a NASA flight research engineer.

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