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Study Group Questions Effectiveness Of Proposed Missile-defense System

May 12, 2004
University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign
As the U.S. Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency ramps up efforts to have the first phase of a multiyear, multibillion-dollar "layered" national defense system in place by September – as mandated by President Bush – the agency's fast-tracked plans have been hitting a few speed bumps.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As the U.S. Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency ramps up efforts to have the first phase of a multiyear, multibillion-dollar "layered" national defense system in place by September – as mandated by President Bush – the agency’s fast-tracked plans have been hitting a few speed bumps.

The most recent yellow flag was waved by the General Accounting Office in April, in a weighty report that recommended significant improvements in testing and accountability procedures by the Missile Defense Agency. That report, mandated by Congress, comes on the heels of another authoritative report released last year by the American Physical Society’s 12-member Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense. The study group, which reviewed existing information and completed new research as well, was co-chaired by Frederick K. Lamb, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Daniel Kleppner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lamb said the 476-page report is widely considered to be "the most rigorous and quantitative report" to date on the feasibility of developing and deploying a boost-phase defense against long-range missiles. The U. of I. researcher, who also is a professor in the university’s Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security, is to present an overview of the study group’s work today (May 3) in Denver at the APS April meeting, which concludes May 4. He also will discuss the impact the study has had since its release on plans to fund development, testing and implementation of boost-phase interceptor programs.

While the agency’s primary focus at this time is on deployment of a system that would target warheads launched by intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, during the "midcourse" phase of their flight trajectories – after they’ve separated from their booster rockets but before they re-enter the atmosphere – Lamb said the goal of the boost-phase program is "to disable missiles by hitting them with interceptor rockets or a laser beam in their first few minutes of flight, while the booster rockets are burning and before they have released their warheads." This approach is viewed by proponents of the Bush administration’s Ballistic Missile Defense System as one element of its proposed layered defense system, in which enemy warheads – with nuclear, chemical or biological payloads – might be destroyed in any or all phases of flight.

Lamb believes results of the APS study "came out at exactly the right time" – just as Congress was poised to begin the process of allocating resources to the highly ambitious program, without access to full and unbiased knowledge regarding the feasibility of the proposed technologies.

"I think this year is the year of decision for that program," Lamb said. "No decision has yet been made by Congress about whether to initiate a major program to defend against ICBMs by intercepting them during their boost phase. The big decisions about whether to start such a program are about to be made," he said, noting that President Bush’s proposed $9.2 billion budget for missile defense for FY 2005 includes provisions for early phases of boost-phase development.

The APS study group evaluated boost-phase intercept systems that would defend the United States using land-, sea-, air- or space-based interceptor rockets, or the Airborne Laser (ABL) currently under development. The group focused solely on the capacity of the technology to deliver, steering clear of larger issues which Lamb said ultimately have to be addressed. Among them, communications, command, control and battle management requirements, and policy issues – "such as the arms control, strategic stability or foreign policy implications of testing or deploying a boost-phase defense."

Because government officials had expressed concern about the potential for North Korea, Iran and Iraq to acquire or produce either liquid- or solid-propellant missiles in the next 10 to 15 years, the APS group focused on U.S. capabilities to mount an effective defense against ICBMs originating from those countries. Liquid-propellant missiles use an older technology, and have longer burn times than solid-propellant ICBMs.

"In assessing the feasibility of boost-phase missile defense using hit-to-kill interceptors or the ABL, we attempted to make optimistic assumptions to bound the performance of such systems," the physicists wrote in the report’s concluding remarks. "In some cases we made assumptions that appear technically possible but may not be realistic on other grounds. An important example is the assumption in some of our analyses that interceptors could be fired as soon as a target track has been constructed, without allowing additional time for decision or assessment."

In the end, the scientists concluded that "while the boost-phase technologies we studied are potentially capable of defending the United States against liquid-propellant ICBMs at certain ranges of interest, at least in the absence of counter-measures, when all factors are considered none of the boost-phase defense concepts studied would be viable for the foreseeable future to defend the nation against even first-generation solid-propellant ICBMs."

Since the APS report was issued, Lamb and other members of the group have spent considerable time in Washington, D.C., briefing Congressional aides on their findings – meeting with representatives from both sides of the aisle on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senate and House Armed Services Committees. They’ve also presented briefings for the scientific and technical staff at the U.S. Department of State, and delivered their findings at the Institute for Defense Analysis and the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

Following the physicists’ presentations of their results to the nation’s legislative leaders and policymakers, significant changes were made in the funding of several program elements, Lamb said. For instance, FY 04 funding for the "so-called common interceptor – intended to be all things to all people, and used for all the programs" – was frozen at $100 million.

"The president had advocated tripling that, with plans to increase it to $10 billion per year after several years," Lamb said. "Congress said, ‘We don’t think the program has been studied sufficiently – the homework has not been done.’ "

While deployment of an effective national missile defense system may not be out of the question someday, Lamb said the United States should not begin such a deployment until it’s clear that the following requirements have been met: "One, we know that it will be effective; two, it won’t bankrupt the U.S.; and three, it won’t cause other countries to respond in ways that would make us even less safe."

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University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign. "Study Group Questions Effectiveness Of Proposed Missile-defense System." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 May 2004. <>.
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