WASHINGTON - With the planned national missile defense system plagued by test failures and consumed by criticism, a sliver of consensus for an alternative system is emerging among former Reagan administration officials, peaceniks, conservative think tanks, MIT scientists and Russia's president.
They are all intrigued by the same questions: Can enemy missiles be shot down earlier in flight rather than in the more difficult realm of space? And could Navy ships manage the task?
The proposed U.S. shield calls for 100 Alaska-based interceptor missiles, which are designed to shoot down a missile in space. But a disparate group of voices is asking whether land-based systems overseas or ships poised off an adversary's shore could destroy a missile in its earliest "boost phase" while still in the atmosphere.
Such a defense would cost an estimated one-third less than the proposed $30 billion Alaska system. And it could use technology already in hand or in development. Moreover, in contrast to their resistance to the Alaska system, the Russians do not see a boost-phase proposal as threatening and are actually advocating one.
The mobility of Navy ships could be used to bring America's European allies under a defensive ballistic umbrella, proponents of the boost-phase al- ternative say.
"During the boost phase, missiles move relatively slowly," Richard Perle, an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, wrote in the New York Times last week. "They are easy to pinpoint."
Theodore A. Postol, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former Pentagon adviser, argues vigorously that the interception of missiles in space is unworkable. But, Postol says, the boost-phase approach "makes tremendously more sense. All the technology is in hand."
The conservative Heritage Foundation has said that a boost-phase system that would be "more effective" than the Alaska system could be built before 2005, the year the first 20 Alaska interceptors are scheduled for deployment.
Joseph Cirincione of the liberal Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a critic of the Clinton administration's missile defense plan, suggests that Navy Aegis cruisers off North Korea could "put a cap" on a missile fired toward the United States. "It's definitely worth pursuing," he said.
In meetings with U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has said his nation could work with the United States on a boost-phase system that might protect not only the United States and Russia, but Europe as well. Putin opposes the plan for interceptor missiles in Alaska, saying that it would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bars national defense systems.
To be sure, a boost-phase system, based on land or sea, would be no panacea: It would require that interceptor missiles be positioned close to the launch site of an enemy missile. The challenge would be to deploy enough ships to suppress the threat or, in the case of a land-based boost-phase system, to know exactly where to build it.
A role for the Navy
Though the Navy now has no role in missile defense, the failure of the latest Pentagon interceptor test on July 7 has energized discussion about a boost-phase system and the part the Navy might play.
"We ought to be moving forward on a sea-based program," Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, said the day after the test.
The Navy is testing other missile defenses - so-called area and theater-wide - that are designed to shoot down shorter-range missiles that could target U.S. forces and ships overseas. There have been a few tests - the most recent, just more than a week ago, was a failure - and several dozen more are planned. The area missile defense is scheduled to be ready by 2003; it would take until 2010 to deploy the more expansive theater-wide system, the Navy said.
Since 1996, the Navy has received $2.9 billion for missile defense. An additional $3.5 billion is budgeted by the Clinton administration through 2005, though the Navy says it has $1.5 billion less than it needs to proceed with the program as rapidly as possible.
The Navy is clearly enthralled with the idea of taking part in a national missile defense system. Two weeks ago, it created a new missile defense office and next month will send Congress a report on what role it can play in national missile defense.
"The evolutionary approach is very important," said Rear Adm. Michael Mullen, director of Navy surface warfare. "I think we're at the plate. We need to evolve the area and the Navy theater-wide programs."
Pentagon officials say the Navy will also outline how its theater effort can be upgraded to target intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Pros and cons
The Navy estimates that it could outfit a handful of Aegis cruisers for a missile defense role by 2007. The Heritage Foundation and other proponents of a Navy system estimate that with more funding and testing, the Navy could have some ships ready for a missile defense role before 2005, for an initial cost of $3 billion. An expanded role could cost $8 billion to $10 billion, say some missile analysts, though the Pentagon puts the price between $16 billion and $19 billion.
The Navy and most sea-based missile proponents are not suggesting that the Navy could assume the entire missile defense role - only that it could complement space-based interceptors or a land-based anti-missile system, like the one proposed for Alaska. Navy and other missile experts note, for example, that a sea-based system could not target missiles fired far inland and across land.
But many missile-defense advocates now point to the boost-phase plan as the best alternative for missile defense. Scientists note that shooting down a missile in its boost phase allows for a larger and easily distinguishable target.
It also eliminates any concern about enemy decoys, which are designed to fool an interceptor missile. The boost phase is too early for a missile to release its decoy balloons; that can happen only after the enemy missile reaches space.
Proponents of a sea-based role note that the United States has already invested $50 billion on Aegis cruisers and destroyers, which can knock cruise missiles out of the sky. Though boost-phase defenses could be built on land, defense analysts say, their immobility would be a drawback in the case of threats from other nations. Also, some nations might balk at positioning such a system on their territory.
Still, missile experts point to numerous obstacles for a sea-based system.
Postol, the MIT professor, said the Navy would still have to develop missiles able to intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile in its boost phase. He doubts that an Aegis ship is large enough to handle such a missile and suggests that the Navy would instead need to use a barge or Trident submarine. Navy officials disagree and say they could double the size of the current missile and still put it on an Aegis ship.
Navy officials concede that besides creating larger missiles, they would have to develop more sophisticated radars, based aboard the Aegis cruiser or on other Navy ships, to detect the path of a ballistic missile.
Even if the enemy missile were detected by the Navy, the brief boost phase leaves the Aegis with less than two minutes to detect and shoot down the warhead.
"That's a severe drawback for any system," said John Isaacs, president of the anti-nuclear Council for a Livable World, adding that a sea-based system "is not quick, easy or cheap."
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, is also skeptical. Given the obstacles to developing a theater-wide system, he says, "the notion of a near-term and inexpensive sea-based national missile defense option simply isn't realistic."
Moreover, sea-based national missile defense systems, like land-based ones, are barred under the ABM Treaty. While Russia's president is proposing a boost-phase approach to missile defense, he has refused to amend the treaty to permit a national missile defense for the United States.
The Clinton administration had hoped that Putin would agree to allow interceptors based in Alaska, paving the way for a construction decision this year. Now, officials say that because of Putin's recalcitrance and the missile test failures, Clinton might leave such a decision to his successor and move ahead only on the system's Alaska-based radar.
While Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, favors interceptors based in Alaska, his Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, wants to see if a sea-based system makes sense.
Complaining that full testing of a sea-based alternative is barred by the ABM Treaty, Bush said Sunday on ABC-TV's "This Week": "It's the boost-phase system that we need to spend money and time and effort to determine its feasibility."