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BMD Systems Needed Despite Arguments About Smuggled Nukes, General Says

By | May 28, 2007

      The United States must deploy a defense against enemy ballistic missiles, because one cannot simply assume that no rogue state or terrorist group would ever fire a nuclear- tipped missile at a U.S. city, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, said.

      Chilton responded to opponents of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems who say that BMD is a waste of money, because no enemy would fire a missile at the United States, knowing that the missile trajectory could be traced to its source, an invitation for a devastating U.S. nuclear response.

      Opponents of missile defense say rogue states or terrorists, if they strike at the United States, would do so by smuggling a weapon of mass destruction into the country and detonating it in a target city, an attack involving no missile.

      That is fallacious reasoning, Chilton said before a breakfast forum of the National Defense University Foundation at the Capitol Hill Club.

      While it is true that smuggling of weapons of mass destruction is a genuine threat, and must be countered with something other than missile defense systems, Chilton said that U.S. military forces cannot blithely assume that they can abandon efforts to defend against missile attacks.

      Though smuggling is a tangible threat, he said, “if you just limit your focus to that scenario, you are doing a disservice to your country.”

      His comments came after the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) slashed $250 million from the Airborne Laser program, which is to be developed into the leading American measure for killing enemy missiles in their vulnerable initial “boost” phase just after launch.

      As well, the HASC chopped $160 million from the defense authorization bill for the upcoming fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, all the money that was earmarked for initial work on creating a ground-based midcourse missile defense interceptor silos site in Poland. And the House approved the cuts.

      It remains to be seen whether the House Appropriations Committee, and the Senate Appropriations Committee, will endorse the deep cuts in missile defense programs. The Senate Armed Services Committee last week proposed much smaller cuts in missile defense programs. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      Proponents of missile defense stress that the world is seeing ever-greater missile threats, not a lesser risk of attacks.

      For example, North Korea last July tested several missiles, all of them successful except for a long-range Taepo Dong-2 that could strike the U.S. mainland. While the long range missile failed shortly after launch, that doesn’t mean that North Korea won’t continue to develop the weapon, according to military analysts.

      North Korea in October also successfully tested a nuclear weapon in an underground detonation.

      And Iran has tested an array of missiles in a single test, fired a missile from a submerged submarine, and has continued to develop nuclear materials despite widespread global opposition.

      Meanwhile, China has upgraded its long-range missiles; acquired missile-shooting submarines; arrayed 800 radar-guided missiles aimed at waters between China and Taiwan where U.S. naval forces might wish to intervene if China attempts to invade the island nation; used a ground-based missile to destroy a satellite in orbit; and used a laser to “paint” and disable a U.S. military satellite.

      Chilton said even before the Chinese anti-satellite shot obliterated an old Chinese weather satellite and created an enormous and dangerous debris field in space, U.S. military forces were moving to “understand what’s there in space … space situational awareness,” to discover threats to U.S. space assets.

      The United States must know, swiftly, whether a satellite or other space asset suddenly fails to work well because of, say, space weather caused by a sunspot (solar storm), or whether the problem is caused by an enemy “messing with our satellite,” and if so, how the enemy is doing so.

      In a sense, Chilton continued, China performed a service for American armed forces by demonstrating, with its anti-satellite shot, that “our systems in space are not operating in a sanctuary.”

      Minuteman III Program

      On another point, the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile fleet is being refurbished, with each missile receiving thorough modernization of multiple stages, Chilton said.

      Propellant and guidance system replacements are being effected, and other improvements have been provided from the reentry vehicle down to the rocket motor, he said.

      As well, the lifespan of the Minuteman III fleet has been extended for a dozen years by downsizing the overall fleet size by 10 percent, and then using some previously operational missiles as spares for testing, Chilton said.

      The Minuteman III fleet would have lasted until 2018 before running out of missiles to use for testing, he explained. But by removing 50 of the 500 missiles from the operational fleet and setting them aside for use in annual reliability tests of three or four missiles, in an upgraded status, that means the Minuteman III fleet can serve until 2030, he said.

      Once that delayed retirement point comes for the Minuteman III fleet, studies will have to determine whether the next-generation nuclear delivery system will be a Minuteman IV going in the same silos, or some other delivery means, he said.

      He also said air conditioning of silos has been improved, and security is being upgraded at the Minuteman III silo sites near the Minot, Malmstrom and F.E. Warren air force bases, with closed-circuit cameras to identify false-intrusion-alarm causes such as wildlife wandering near silos that lack human guards.

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