washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > David Ignatius
David Ignatius

The Real Missile Defense Gap

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page A15

Here's a macabre defense quiz for the post-Sept. 11 world: Which kind of attack on the United States is more likely over the next 20 years -- a ballistic missile launched from another continent, or a low-flying cruise missile or rocket fired by terrorists from a ship off the U.S. coast? For me, the answer unfortunately is a no-brainer. The more plausible threat is the short-range cruise missile or rocket attack, not the distant ICBM. The ICBM is the old Cold War paradigm of what could get Americans killed; the short-range threat is an all-too-believable image of what terrorists could do today, using missiles bought on the black market and homemade chemical or biological warheads.

Okay, now let's test how U.S. defense dollars are actually being spent: For the current fiscal year, Congress has appropriated $9 billion for the Missile Defense Agency to develop an exotic system based on land, at sea, in air and in space that, in theory, will be able to destroy ICBMs with airborne lasers and kinetic "kill vehicles" traveling at more than 7,000 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the amount being spent specifically for homeland defense against a close-in cruise missile or rocket attack is, as near as I can discover, zero.

_____Today's Op-Eds_____

_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards
_____More Ignatius_____
The Syrians Slip Away (The Washington Post, Mar 18, 2005)
Flirting With Deficit Disasters (The Washington Post, Mar 16, 2005)
Lebanon's Next Steps (The Washington Post, Mar 11, 2005)
About David Ignatius
Add David Ignatius to your personal home page.

That mismatch bothers me. We're spending billions to fight a version of the last war with costly space-based weapons. Meanwhile, we are all but ignoring the real-world weapons that could be used in the next war. I can testify personally to this threat because I was in Kuwait in March 2003 when an Iraqi cruise missile slammed into a shopping center in the middle of town. It was not detected by radar.

The danger of these short-range missile attacks on the United States was highlighted for me recently by Dave Kier, a Lockheed Martin vice president who oversees the company's force-protection projects. You could argue that Lockheed Martin has an interest in sounding the alarm, because it is selling weapons systems that would deal with the threat. But I want to share what Kier said because it describes a problem that, unlike some of the Pentagon's far-off contingencies, is very much here and now.

Kier starts by noting how vulnerable the United States is to a terrorist attack from offshore. He estimates that 75 percent of the U.S. population and 80 percent of its economic wealth are within 200 miles of coastline. The weapons for such an attack are available on the world's arms bazaars. By Kier's count, the potential cruise-missile inventory includes about 6,000 Silkworms and 11,000 Seersuckers. Assuming they were fired from less than 120 miles offshore, it would take them just 11 minutes to reach their targets.

Kier calculates that if a missile with a chemical warhead detonated over Washington, there would be thousands of casualties within the first 10 minutes and tens of thousands after an hour; if the missile were armed with a biological warhead, it would cause hundreds of thousands of casualties in the first hour. If the biological weapon were detonated over New York, casualties in the first five hours would be in the millions, he says.

So what would Lockheed Martin planners do to protect against these missile attacks? Kier proposes a detection system he calls a "passive coherent locator," which is based, believe it or not, on an amplification of existing FM radio signals. He says it would be easy to detect a disturbance in this FM energy field that had the unusual signature of a cruise missile, which is fast but low-flying and therefore doesn't resemble an airplane.

To shoot down the missiles, Kier suggests a combination of existing systems: Aegis missiles from cruisers offshore and Patriot missiles on land. He says a system covering the East Coast, from Washington to Boston, could be in place by 2008 for just over $1 billion.

Would protecting the U.S. coastline against these short-range missile attacks be worth the cost? Would the systems work as well as Kier asserts? I honestly have no idea. I'm also not thrilled about further militarizing American life to protect us against threats most of us hadn't even imagined. And there are doubtless other solutions, besides Lockheed Martin's, that are worth exploring.

But it makes no sense that the United States is spending $9 billion a year to defend against an ICBM threat that, for now, is well in the future -- and nothing to protect against real and present dangers. The United States may face threats from Iran or North Korea down the road, but we're at war with al Qaeda today. If the Bush administration is serious about missile defense, then surely it ought to think harder about stopping the missiles that might actually be used, right now, by America's known enemies.

davidignatius@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company