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Obering Praises Airborne Laser, Others, Defends BMD Budget Outlays

By | January 15, 2007

      The Airborne Laser (ABL) ballistic missile defense (BMD) system has achieved “tremendous success” in the past year, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), said.

      “The Airborne Laser, if it pans out, is” highly desirable because it can attack “all ranges [of incoming enemy missiles] at the speed of light,” Obering said before the Surface Navy Association conference at a hotel near the Pentagon.

      That is “one reason why it is so attractive,” Obering said.

      And the ABL also is attractive because it kills enemy missiles in their boost phase shortly after launching, Obering noted, which occurs before the enemy weapon has a chance to deploy multiple warheads or confusing chaff.

      In the past year, strides have been made in the laser system for the ABL.

      It involves a significantly modified 747 aircraft by The Boeing Co. [BA], along with the laser system by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and beam control/fire control systems by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT].

      Another advantage to ABL that Obering didn’t mention is that the laser doesn’t have the limitation of other systems involving interceptor missiles that have only one chance to strike an enemy weapon at one point in space (critics term it a bullet striking a bullet). Rather, the laser can continue to keep firing at an enemy missile to damage and destroy it physically, and also to fry its electronics.

      Some significant answers will come in 2008 and 2009 as to whether ABL and another system hitting enemy missiles in the boost phase, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), will succeed, Obering noted.

      If ABL doesn’t pan out, he would be highly interested in the remaining boost-phase shield, KEI, he indicated.

      Obering also cited successes during tests of other BMD systems, touting creation of a multi-layered ballistic missile shield.

      There have been 21 successful hit intercepts scored by BMD systems since 2001, Obering stressed, “so I think the question has been answered as to whether” ballistic missile defense is achievable. At this point, he sees the question instead as to when systems can be made operational.

      More generally, Obering defended the money being spent on BMD systems by his agency, as President Bush prepares to unveil the federal government budget plan for all agencies including MDA, which the Office of Management and Budget will do in less than four weeks.

      First, Obering attacked those who say that it is folly to erect a shield against incoming enemy missiles from rogue states such as North Korea or Iran, or terrorist groups, because missiles are traceable and invite retaliation by U.S. nuclear strike forces. Rather, terrorist groups will attempt to smuggle “suitcase” atomic weapons into the United States to destroy American cities, the argument goes.

      But Obering said such arguments are specious, because “it’s not either/or. We’ve got to be able to protect ourselves from either threat.”

      Second, as to MDA spending large sums, Obering observed MDA spends a tiny fraction, less than 3 percent, of the federal budget. Further, even if BMD systems cost a total $100 billion, just the economic damage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to New York City alone totaled $83 billion, “and that was not a weapon of mass destruction,” he said.

      All told, he said, the MDA budget is “a very prudent investment in our nation’s security.”

      That is especially true given the increasing threats that the United States faces, Obering stated.

      They range from North Korea attempting to field a long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile (one of them failed in a test in July), to Iran testing Shahab-3 and other missiles, he indicated.

      Even if a rogue nation such as North Korea or Iran doesn’t launch its missiles, merely the widespread knowledge that such a nation possesses them can permit that rogue state to “change the geo-political balance” in its region, Obering said.

      Possession of even short-range missiles and rockets can have major effect, Obering noted, observing that Hezbollah terrorists launched some 4,000 rockets and missiles in attacking Israel.

      On another point, he said the United States needs “precision in tracking” enemy missiles, adding that “we will put up a couple of satellites this year” that will move toward that goal.

      By the end of the year, he continued, there will be an improved tracking station at Fylingdales, England.

      It is better to have data from many sensors fed into the chase after an incoming enemy missile, he noted.

      One newer radar is the Sea-Based X-Band radar to be home ported at Adak, Alaska, a radar that can move underway to areas where it is needed. While seas there are “a tough environment,” Obering said there was “a team of experts [to] look at it.”

      The Coast Guard last year expressed concern that the radar, on a structure like a mobile oil platform, would not be able to counter extreme high winds common in the north seas, and could be pushed into danger. Also, the Coast Guard worried that it might have difficulty responding if crew on the mobile radar suffered a medical mergency.

      But MDA responded that it has mapped out steps to cover each of those concerns.

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