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Missile Defense Takes Big Hit In 2006 Budget Plan

File photo of successful missile defense flight test on January 26, 2004, launched from Meck Island in the Kwajalein Island Atoll, for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program. Photo: Boeing.
Washington (AFP) Feb 07, 2005
The Pentagon plans to cut spending on missile defense by five billion dollars over the next six years, slashing a program to develop a "boost phase" interceptor missile, senior defense officials said.

The cuts were proposed to Congress Monday in a 2006 budget submission that lops a billion dollars off the Missile Defense Agency's budget in the first year, and 800 million dollars a year for the next five years.

They are the largest cuts to the program under President George W. Bush, a champion of missile defense, showing that war costs and mounting deficits were biting even into programs once considered sacrosanct by conservatives.

The effort to build a system capable of defending the United States against long-range missile attack has long been controversial, with critics attacking its high cost and questioning its feasibility.

But a senior Missile Defense Agency official expressed confidence the cuts do not signal an erosion of support.

"We have no indication of that, and we'll just make do with the dollars that are provided," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the budget had not yet been officially released.

"This program has been treated very well over the last several years by the president, the secretary of defense and certainly by the Congress and I see no reason why that support will diminish," he said.

If approved by Congress, the cuts will reduce the Missile Defense Agency's 2006 budget to about 7.8 billion dollars from about 8.8 billion dollars the previous year.

When missile defense programs in the military services are added the total rises to 8.8 billion dollars in fiscal 2006, down from 9.9 billion dollars in

Hardest hit by the cuts is a program to develop a sea-based missile called a Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) capable of intercepting and destroying a long-range missile as it is boosting into space after launch.

Fired from warships near the target, the KEI would in theory zero in on the target missile's superheated plume as it fires into space.

But hitting a long-range missile as it ascends into space means an interceptor missile must outrace its target - a daunting technical challenge, officials concede.

Because of the high risk of failure, MDA has decided to cut the KEI budget by 800 million dollars in 2006 and reduce funding significantly through at least 2008 while it proves itself, the senior official said.

The program's aim also has been broadened to develop a missile capable of intercepting long-range missiles not only in their boost and ascent phases but also at mid-trajectory, he said.

"This is rewarding success, and I don't like to use the term, but penalizing failure," the official said, adding that major tests were planned each year culminating in a full propulsion flight test in 2008.

"If it succeeds in all of that, then it can look forward to being whole in the future years," he said.

At the same time, the agency continues to pursue another boost-phase option - the Airborne Laser (ABL), a modified Boeing 747 with a Chemical, Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) that in theory would destroy missiles in flight by heating their skin until it cracks.

Flight tests against targets are scheduled for 2008.

"It is revolutionary, it is disruptive, meaning this required inventions and doing things that have never been done before," said the official, likening the potential impact on warfare of the airborne laser to the advent of nuclear power.

"And it has done so well, certainly in the last ten months that we really need to pursue this to a conclusion. We're encouraged by everything we've seen," he said.

The Pentagon also plans to expand its most mature missile defense system, a network of sensors and ground-based missiles designed to intercept incoming long-range missiles in space at mid-trajectory.

Six such missiles are currently in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska and two at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. But the numbers are scheduled to grow to at least 38 over the course of the six year plan.

A third site with another ten interceptor missiles may be added at an as yet undetermined location in Europe, but those plans were pushed back for at least a year to 2010 because of the budget cuts, the official said.

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