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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Pentagon Cancels Sea-Based Missile Defense Program
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Wade Boese

Citing poor performance, projected cost overruns, and schedule delays, on December 14 the Pentagon cancelled a sea-based missile defense system designed to protect against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles during their final stage of flight, although Pentagon officials said they were not abandoning the effort to build a defense for that mission.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Edward Aldridge announced the cancellation of the Navy Area Theater Ballistic Missile Defense system after program acquisition costs soared more than 57 percent.

Under current law, if the cost increase of a Pentagon program exceeds 25 percent, the secretary of defense, in order to keep funding the program, must certify that it is “essential to national security,” that there are no cheaper alternatives to accomplish the same mission, that the cost increase is “reasonable,” and that the program is run to manage or control the cost increases. Aldridge told reporters December 21 that he could not certify that costs were under control or that a management structure was in place to prevent further cost increases, resulting in the cancellation of the program, which has cost a little more than $2.3 billion to date.

The cancellation came unexpectedly. Earlier this year, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which oversees U.S. missile defense efforts, recommended transferring the program to the Navy to manage because it was judged mature enough to be run by a service. The Bush administration had also requested $388 million to fund the program during fiscal year 2002, of which $100 million will now be used for program termination costs.

Aldridge assured reporters December 21 that the Pentagon “will develop a new Navy terminal system.” The new missile system’s interceptor will be built around “hit-to-kill” technology, which means that the system will destroy incoming warheads through force of collision rather than through an explosion. Other U.S. missile interceptors under development employ hit-to-kill technology, but the Navy Area system was designed to carry a blast-fragmentation warhead.

The Pentagon issued the cancellation notice only one day after President George W. Bush announced the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in six months so that the Pentagon would have a free hand to develop all kinds of missile defenses. (See Bush Announces U.S. Intent to Withdraw From ABM Treaty.) A major complaint by missile defense advocates over the past few years has been that the treaty prohibited development of sea-based defenses against strategic ballistic missiles, but because the Navy Area defense was to be a theater system, its testing was permitted by the treaty.

Although geared toward defending against slower theater ballistic missiles, the Navy Area defense and the Navy Theater Wide system, which is also designed to counter short- and medium-range missiles, were viewed by some missile defense proponents as possible stepping stones to a sea-based strategic defense. Neither system, however, has attempted an intercept at sea, and Pentagon reports state that the theater systems’ radars are incapable of detecting and tracking long-range ballistic missiles.

Philip Coyle, the former director of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation during the Clinton administration, described the Navy Area system in his last annual report as being “technically solid.” Now a senior adviser with the independent Center for Defense Information, Coyle said in a January 7 interview that the cancellation of the program, which was tasked with defending a relatively small area when compared with the responsibility of a strategic defense, shows how difficult it is to build missile defenses.