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Cruise Missile Defense Effort Only Beginning; Vast Gains Required

By | October 2, 2006

      While questions may hang over the multi-layered U.S. ballistic missile defense program, it nonetheless is leagues ahead of any U.S. cruise missile defense effort, experts said at a symposium on Capitol Hill.

      Daunting hurdles confront any move to erect a U.S. shield against cruise missiles, according to speakers at a forum of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank.

      And yet it is clear that a critical need exists here, since a single terrorist cruise missile carrying a chemical, biological or dirty-bomb warhead could wreak havoc, death and destruction on a targeted U.S. city, speakers said.

      They included Navy Capt. Bob Barwis, with the Joint Theater Air and Missile Defense Organization; John Heidenrich, senior policy analyst with Science Applications International Corp. [SAIC]; and Christopher Bolkcom, analyst in national defense with the Congressional Research Service. Bolkcom noted that the nonpartisan CRS doesn’t make recommendations for or against procurement of weapons platforms.

      The experts sketched out a picture detailing the cruise missile threat; why it might be difficult to counter that threat; the question as to just which agency should rise to the challenge; and problems in devising a workable and practical but effective shield against these enemy weapons:

      *Cruise missiles pose a tough detection challenge, Barwis noted. They operate at a low altitude where U.S. radar is challenged to pick them out of the clutter of other air traffic, terrain obstructions and more; worse, they have a low radar cross-section; cruise missiles are highly maneuverable; and it may be difficult to differentiate between a friendly and an enemy missile.

      *U.S. forces may have only a 13-mile horizon in which to detect and counter a cruise missile.

      *The United States has thousands of miles of coastlines, and some cruise missiles have ranges of 300 miles, while others can fly better than 1,500 miles, so an enemy in international waters can hit many major U.S. cities. “We have a very, very long coastline,” Heidenrich said.

      *Cruise missiles can be cheap to buy, but expensive to defend against, he noted, adding that one fellow built a cruise missile in his garage out of parts he bought on eBay and obtained elsewhere. It only had a range of about 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, but this is disquieting nonetheless.

      *There are estimated to be some 75,000 cruise missiles extant worldwide. And some are wielded and even exported by regimes such as Iran, North Korea and China.

      *Many cruise missiles can be slipped inside the standard international shipping container.

      *While a terrorist group might not be able to obtaina nuclear weapon that would fit into a cruise missile payload section, that is no solace. A dirty bomb that merely spreads radioactive debris near the U.S. Capitol building or in Manhattan could create a hot plume that would cover a substantial area. For example, detonated in Manhattan, that could spread radioactive matter of varying concentrations over an area stretching out to cover White Plains, N.Y., and on into posh Connecticut suburbs.

      *”Almost every nation in the world has enough radiological material to build at least one dirty bomb,” Heidenrich said.

      *If terrorists were to obtain even a small nuclear weapon, results would be horrific. If Osama bin Laden had used such a weapon on the World Trade Center, instead of using planes, a half-kiloton blast would have knocked over the twin towers so that they would have fallen on other buildings, in a domino effect. While on Sept. 11, 2001, there was time to evacuate thousands of people from the trade center before it collapsed, if terrorists employ a nuclear device, there is no time for any evacuation.

      *Or, a cruise missile might be armed with a chemical or biological agent. While it might not be deployed in a manner to be effective, and weather conditions might reduce its lethality, it might yet cause panic in the populace.

      *For all this, one shouldn’t overstate the danger posed by cruise missiles in the hands of terrorists or rogue states. “The cruise missile threat to the homeland is serious, and yet it is not dire,” Heidenrich said.

      *As far as U.S. leaders are concerned, “the threat is not clear to policymakers,” Bolkcom said, and “cruise missile defense would be very expensive.” He added, “I haven’t seen a real sustained sense of urgency on this problem … The attention given cruise missiles is fairly anemic.”

      *In cruise missile defense, it makes more sense to hit the launcher before the enemy launches weapons, rather than attempting later to take down missiles in flight.

      *There is an immense array of potential missile targets, including thousands of aircraft.Countering cruise missiles might cost $50 billion or more to protect against relatively cheap, low-cost missiles.

      *Politically, a vast array of congressional committees and subcommittees can become involved in overseeing and having a say in any program to counter cruise missiles.

      *Then who should take responsibility for forming a cruise missile shield: the Department of Defense? Department of Homeland Security? Missile Defense Agency?

      *Even if robust funding is provided, it won’t buy a 100 percent protection against the missiles. “We’re never going to have an impermeable shield,” Bolkcom said.

      *But if there is no cruise missile defense, and a major U.S. city is struck by a terrorist missile carrying a weapon of mass destruction, the cost in lives and treasure could be catastrophic.

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