July 9, 2007 / 9:31 PM / 12 years ago

U.S. cruise missile defense said possible in 14 months

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States could deploy a system to protect an area ranging from Washington to Boston from sea-based cruise-missile attacks within 14 months at a cost of “several billion dollars,” a top Lockheed Martin Corp. executive said on Monday.

David Kier, who formerly was deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said the technologies needed to track, identify and destroy any such missiles launched from ships off the U.S. coastline already existed or were under development.

“It just requires a will to do it,” he told congressional aides at a briefing.

Subsonic cruise missiles are not difficult to destroy, Kier said. But it is essential to track them quickly, as they can reach a target within 11 minutes, and to destroy them over water to avoid damage from the debris, he added.

Lockheed has long lobbied for a program to defend against cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles, a market valued by some analysts at upwards of $10 billion.

Short-range cruise missiles are easy to hide, relatively cheap, and can carry a variety of warheads such as biological or chemical weapons, according to some experts.

The company had high hopes for its $148 million High Altitude Airship program, for airships priced at just under $40 million apiece that can hover and monitor a 500-square-mile area for about two months.

But the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency cut the program’s budget sharply in fiscal year 2007 and requested no funding at all for 2008. Lockheed convinced lawmakers to reinstate the 2007 funds, and there is an amendment to provide a small sum in 2008, but the program’s outlook is grim at this point.

Christopher Bolkcom, defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said cruise missiles were difficult to track and that Lockheed’s forecast about deploying a wide-area defense was “optimistic.”

“It’s sort of like border security. You can put some useful measures in place, but you can never afford a fool-proof system,” he said.

Bolkcom said U.S. policymakers had likely done “the mental calculus that it’s too expensive, too hard, on the one hand, and the threat is not big enough to justify it, on the other.”

Another speaker at the briefing, Jeff Kueter, president of the Washington-based George C. Marshall Institute, underscored the urgency of the threat.

Tens of thousands of cruise missiles are available globally and 20 countries can build them, he said. North Korea fired up to two short-range missiles from its west coast last month, following a series of long- and short-range missile tests last year.

He called for greater efforts to defend against cruise missiles, which he said were becoming the “weapons of choice” for potential competitor states and terrorist groups.

Cruise missiles were first fired at U.S. troops during the war in Iraq. But the United States itself, with 12,000 miles of coastline, provides ample targets for extremist groups, especially since cruise missiles can be easily be stowed inside a standard cargo container.

The U.S. military has plans to protect troops, ships and overseas bases from cruise missile attacks, but it has no plan and no budget to protect the U.S. coastline, Kueter said.

Lockheed’s Kier said the United States needed an integrated plan to guard against attacks by cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and other manned and unmanned aircraft.

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