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Study group questions
effectiveness of proposed missile-defense system
Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor
by Bill Wiegand
K. Lamb, professor of physics and of astronomy,
co-chaired the American Physical Society’s
12-member Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems
for National Missile Defense, which last year evaluated
the feasibility of boost-phase intercept systems
in defending the United States against intercontinental
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
"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
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
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
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."