Missile defense system could use a reality check

Posted: Wednesday, March 07, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

The Bush administration and Congress are being reminded that a highly complex system like the proposed national missile shield can't simply be willed into existence. The General Accounting Office reports that a key element of the program, an infrared surveillance satellite network to detect incoming warheads and provide data to track and destroy them, is unlikely to be ready on schedule or perform as intended. The Space-Based Infrared System Low, as the satellite system is called, is the eyes of the expanded anti-missile defense that President Bush wants. At a minimum, the timetable for proceeding with missile defense demands revision.

This isn't the first time that technical progress has failed to keep pace with strategic goals, and it surely won't be the last. The message sent by the GAO, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, is that it could be extremely wasteful as well as militarily futile to rush into a program where formidable obstacles remain to be overcome. The Air Force plans to begin launching the first of 24 satellites in 2006, with all in place by 2010. To meet that arbitrary deadline the Air Force chose to start building the satellites before development work on them has been completed. That approach, the GAO warns, would commit the Air Force to purchasing costly parts that might never be used if design changes make them unneeded or obsolete, as so often happens.

Moreover, reports the GAO, the software the system requires won't be completed until three years after the first satellites are launched. In fact, five of the six essential technologies the system depends on might not be ready when needed.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, has voiced "grave concern" about the GAO report.

Early hearings on the weaknesses of the proposed missile defense system are clearly needed. The folly of rushing into a hugely expensive program whose key elements have yet to be developed, definitively tested and shown to be effective is apparent. The timetable for building a National Missile Defense system should be driven not by political considerations but by the practical dictates of the technologies needed to make NMD work. The schedule should take full account of these technical realities.

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