April 17, 2008 / 11:17 PM / 11 years ago

UPDATE 1-Pentagon eyes doubling its missile interceptors

(adds space-based missile defenses, paras 10-11)

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON, April 17 (Reuters) - The chief U.S. weapons buyer told Congress on Thursday he was aiming to ramp up deployment of anti-missile systems beyond those projected in President George W. Bush’s latest budget request.

“Like many members of this committee, I believe we need to field additional ballistic missile defense assets in the near-term,” John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, told a House of Representatives Armed Services subcommittee.

He referred by name to systems like Lockheed Martin Corp’s Aegis ship-board Ballistic Missile defense and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

These could provide combat commanders plus U.S. friends and allies “a significant defensive capability in just a few years,” Young said in prepared remarks to the committee’s strategic forces panel.

THAAD is designed to defend against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Made up of a fire control and communications system, interceptors, launchers and a radar post, it is the only anti-missile weapon designed to knock out targets both inside the atmosphere and in space.

The Aegis ballistic missile defense system feeds into a layered shield that also includes what will be, by year end, a total of 30 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California managed by Boeing Co (BA.N).

The head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, told reporters the Pentagon tentatively was planning to “roughly double” output of both THAAD and Standard Missile-3 interceptors, built by Raytheon Co for the Aegis system, in the five years or so starting from fiscal 2010.

“If they allocate the amount of money that we would recommend to do this, it would roughly double the number of missiles” produced across the next five-year planning period, he said after the hearing.

Obering said it remained to be determined whether the funding for stepped-up interceptor deployments would come from the Missile Defense Agency budget or from the armed services.

Arguing for approval of $10 million in seed money, he added that the overall system’s performance “could be greatly enhanced some day by an integrated, space-based layer.”

“I would like to begin concept analysis and preparation for small-scale experiments,” Obering told lawmakers who have rejected previous such Bush administration space-related missile defense requests.

Under Bush’s fiscal 2009 budget request sent to Congress in February, the Missile Defense Agency had been planning to buy 111 SM-3 interceptors for the Aegis system as well as 96 THAAD interceptors.

Lockheed Martin started THAAD production under a $619 million contract that covered 48 interceptors, six launchers and two fire control and communications units, the company announced in January 2007.

Raytheon has been producing SM-3 missiles to be used for sea-based defense under a contact that includes options for additional missiles that, if exercised, would bring the total contract value to more than $1 billion, the company said on Feb. 15.

Obering told lawmakers that he expected THAAD to be “very attractive” to other countries. He said one country that he did not name already was “fairly well down the path” toward requesting permission to buy the system.

Young, the weapons buyer, said the United States must keep pace with a perceived threat by equipping with advanced ballistic missile defense capabilities.

“I believe that keeping pace with the threat while continuing to deliver effective capabilities requires an approach that balances near-term fielding and far-term development,” he said.

He said the Defense Department was requesting $10.4 billion in fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1, for continued development of a layered anti-missile shield. Of the total, $9.3 billion would go to the Missile Defense Agency. (Editing by Toni Reinhold and Carol Bishopric)

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