WASHINGTON The U.S. Congress has approved $5 million for an independent study of possible space-based missile defenses, a potential step toward a system once mocked as "Star Wars."
The seed money was included in a little-noticed part of the 2009 Defense Appropriations bill, signed into law by President George W. Bush on September 30 as part of a catch-all funding measure.
U.S. defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp could be big beneficiaries of any decision to move ahead with space-based defenses.
Last year, Congress rejected $10 million sought for such a study amid concerns it could lead to "weaponization" of space. The Bush administration had sought $10 million again this year to start a "testbed" in space, a sort of proof of concept.
The $5 million appropriation lets the Pentagon hire one or more entities to review the feasibility and advisability of adding space-based interceptors to the growing numbers of U.S. interceptor missiles on the ground and at sea.
The U.S. bulwark is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in all stages of their flight. President Bush ordered the Pentagon to start fielding it four years ago to guard against a launch from North Korea or Iran, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency says on its website.
The new look at a space-based layer comes as a previously unstated premise for U.S. missile defense -- hedging against a potential threat from China -- is starting to be discussed openly in Washington.
An advisory board to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for instance, urged in a recently leaked draft report that the United States counter China's growing might with new missile defense capabilities, "including taking full advantage of space."
"The United States must explore the potential that space provides for missile defenses across the spectrum of threats," according to the draft report by the secretary's International Security Advisory Board and made available on the Washington Times website on October 1.
The $5 million was the first seed money for potential space-based interceptors since a Democratic-controlled Congress canceled such work in 1993. At the time, President Bill Clinton was said to be taking "the stars out of Star Wars," the derisive term applied to President Ronald Reagan's "strategic defense initiative" launched ten years earlier.
Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who is a staunch missile defense proponent, recommended the study be done by an entity like the Institute for Defense Analyses -- a nonprofit that weighs national security issues for the government, particularly those requiring scientific and technical expertise.
"In the past 15 years, the ballistic missile threat has substantially increased and is now undeniable," he said in a September 29 speech on the Senate floor.
A pro-space-based missile defense panel, called the Independent Working Group, has estimated that a space-based system could be tested within three years at a cost of $3 billion to $5 billion.
It recommended deploying 1,000 space-based interceptors at a projected cost of $16.4 billion in 2005 dollars to provide "high-confidence" protection against attacks involving up to 200 warheads.
Critics argue that putting interceptors in space would be much more costly and undercut larger U.S. interests by "weaponizing" space.
A 2003 American Physical Society study found that intercepting a single intercontinental ballistic missile from space would require a five- to ten-fold increase in the United States' annual space-launch capabilities.
Opponents also say the United States stands to lose the most by putting weapons in space and inviting potential attacks on its vast array of space systems that it is keen to protect. Space-based technologies help run everything from financial networks to navigation and the military's pinpoint targeting capabilities.
"Ironically, by trying to protect our space assets, space-based missile defense instead makes them vulnerable," said Victoria Samson at the private Center for Defense Information.
(Reporting by Jim Wolf; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)