Strategic Weapons: August 7, 2001

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The Pentagon is having no trouble finding things to spend its extra missile defense testing funds on, even if some of the programs are poorly defined. The goal, however, is not just to spend the money but to prove that the various systems actually work. Even if everything goes smoothly and funding continued, the multi-layer defense system will exist only as bare bones and a handful of systems by 2005. By this time, there would be five interceptors in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, and an upgraded Cobra Dane early warning radar. The X-band fire-control radar (which would improve the accuracy of the interceptors) isn't being funded yet, but then the Clinton Administration did not plan for it to be active until 2006. There are problems to be solved, and some of them cannot be. If an interceptor is launched from Fort Greely, the burned out first stage will all but certainly fall into Alaska. This could pose a safety hazard, which might be acceptable when defending against an attack but would not be acceptable during tests. By 2004, the Army should have widely deployed the Patriot PAC-3, the first version of Patriot specifically designed as a missile interceptor. A single operational battery for the Theater High Altitude Defense system, intended to be the first line of defense for deployed troops and forward bases, would be in place by 2004. By 2004, the Navy will have completed its operational tests of the Area Wide missile defense system (which uses a blast-fragmentation warhead); each ship with this system can protect an area 50x150km. That should cover a carrier group. The better Navy Theater Wide system (with an exo-atmospheric hit-to-kill warhead) will have completed some tests and might be able to provide limited coverage in one high-threat area, but a capability that would actually contribute to national defense must wait for a new missile that cannot be ready for serious tests before 2008. (This would require a faster booster and a more maneuverable kill vehicle. The Navy had planned to use the Standard missile for this project, but the Pentagon says it won't be good enough and a new missile must be developed.) By 2004, the Air Force will have at most one of its Airborne Lasers flying, and the prototype could in theory be sent to a war theater in an emergency. This prototype will have only six laser modules (the warfighting version would have 14) which would seriously limit its range.--Stephen V Cole

 


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