US stages missile defense "war games" for Congress

By Andrea Shalal-Esa
Tue Jan 24, 2006 5:17 PM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. missile defense shield is still under construction for around $9 billion a year but lawmakers can play this week on a simulation of the single most expensive U.S. weapons program.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is hosting war games in Congress to help lawmakers better understand the missile shield as the February 6 unveiling of President George W. Bush's budget plan approaches.

Agency spokesman Rick Lehner said he expected program funding to remain basically stable in the fiscal 2007 budget, after spending $8.8 billion in fiscal 2006.

Boeing Co. is prime contractor for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System, and Lockheed Martin Corp. is leading development of the battle management control system.

Raytheon Co., General Dynamics Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. also have key roles.

The missile defense system, which has not staged any intercept tests for almost a year following two failures, has faced criticism from some lawmakers and government watchdogs, who worry the system has not been adequately tested.

In a new report to Congress, the Pentagon's testing office last week concluded there was "insufficient evidence to support a confident assessment of limited defensive operations," although it added that development test data suggested the "system may have some inherent defensive capability."

"This is tough technology," said Sen. Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican. He said he was not unduly concerned about intercept test failures in February 2005 and December 2004, saying they helped officials understand the system's limits.

Allard said he continued to support development of a missile defense system, citing concern about efforts by Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear capabilities.

The Bush administration remains strongly wedded to the program, a scaled-down version of the missile defense shield known as "Star Wars" first envisioned by former President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

John Isaacs, policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the war games were intended to pump up support for a "program that is seriously in trouble."

"If the war games were realistic, an awful lot of the missiles would not get off the ground," said Isaacs. "The program has suffered serious setbacks in recent years, and there's absolutely no evidence whether it will work."

On Tuesday, one war game simulated the U.S. response to medium- and long-range missile attacks by a fictional country named "Midland" on South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

One of nine U.S. interceptors failed to launch, allowing a nuclear-tipped enemy missile to hit Alaska's Aleutian Islands.

Retired Vice Adm. Dave Frost said the simulation was meant to show the complex elements of missile defense, including a battle management system that links data around the globe.

Lehner said a decision on declaring the system ready for military use, which had been expected last year, would be made by U.S. Strategic Command, but he had no idea when it was due.

"It could be available in the event of an emergency, but until all the training and procedures are completed, it's not ready for 24/7 alert status," he said.

Lehner said the agency planned four tests of the system this year, including two intercept tests in the second half of 2006, fulfilling another recommendation in the new Pentagon report.

The report said the battle management system was "making progress, but has not yet demonstrated engagement control."

MDA hoped to have up to 16 interceptors in place at Fort Greely, Alaska, by now, and eight at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, but only half those have been deployed.

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.