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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The former top U.S. weapons tester told Congress on Wednesday the Pentagon was wasting what may add up to hundreds of billions of dollars to build what he described as a largely useless anti-ballistic missile shield.
"Missile defense is the most difficult development the Pentagon has ever attempted," said Philip Coyle, who served from 1994 to 2001 as an assistant secretary of defense and the head of Pentagon arms testing.
The threat being used to justify the large sums being spent has been exaggerated, he said, "and if it were real the proposed missile defense systems couldn't deal with it anyway."
Coyle and other prominent critics testified the Pentagon and contractors such as Boeing Co, Lockheed Martin Corp and Northrop Grumman Corp had made scant progress toward being able to defeat ballistic missiles despite federal outlays of perhaps $150 billion since then-President Ronald Reagan made his famous "Star Wars" speech in 1983.
Intercept tests during the past five years have been "simpler and less realistic" than tests in the previous five years, Coyle said in remarks prepared for a House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee.
Decoys and countermeasures remained the "Achilles Heel" of missile defense, he said.
For example, he derided a multibillion-dollar Boeing-led effort to put a chemical laser aboard a modified 747 jumbo jet to destroy missiles near their launch site. The so-called Airborne Laser would add to missile defenses based on land, at sea and sensors in space, if its funding continues.
"But if the enemy paints their missiles with an ordinary white paint, a white paint that is 90 percent reflective to the laser, then 90 percent of the laser energy bounces off," Coyle testified, citing what he called research by NASA and others.
"To compensate for this, the Airborne Laser would need to be 10 times more powerful and would need an aircraft bigger than a Boeing 747," he said.
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, dismissed Coyle's criticism as wholly unfounded.
"Regarding the paint, not true," Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman, said in an e-mailed reply. "That the U.S. would spend more than 4 billion on a weapon system that could be defeated by a coat of paint might make a good sitcom but has no basis in fact."
Boeing, which also is managing the core ground-based missile defense system, did not respond to a request for comment.
On decoys, Lehner said MDA counted five successful intercepts from 1999 to 2002 "against the type of decoys we would expect from a country like North Korea or Iran."
"We know the current technology can deal with this type of decoy, and we've spent the time since 2002 perfecting the radars, interceptor missile sensors, booster rockets and command and control system while doing research on dealing with more advanced countermeasures we could face in the future," he said.
"Upcoming tests will include challenging countermeasures, and we will continue our development program to keep up with the threat," Lehner added.
President Bush is seeking $13.2 billion for all missile defense programs in fiscal 2009 and a projected total of $62.5 billion over the coming five years, according to the private Center for Defense Information.
Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program, told the House panel the United States was no closer to being able to "effectively defend against long-range ballistic missiles than it was 25 years ago."
But Jeff Kueter, president of the private George C. Marshall Institute that focuses on how science is used in making public policy, said he detected "significant progress" in building the shield since 2002.
"Further improvement of the defense is essential," he testified.
Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Carol Bishopric