WASHINGTON – The Pentagon’s top brass have been parading to Capitol Hill recently to tell Congress what they need to defend the nation: more fighter and cargo planes, artillery shells, even paint for base housing.
But what the military services get for fiscal 1997 will depend largely on whether the Republican-controlled 104th Congress goes ahead with a massive anti-missile defense system, estimated to cost between $16 billion and $30 billion.
“This system will be the hot defense issue in Congress this year,” said Liesl Heeter, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
The proposed system is expected to contain more than 100 interceptors that would be fired from five locations in the continental United States. It would protect all 50 states.
The system would be designed to use space-based sensors and ground-based radar that would tell the Pentagon when a threatening missile is fired and where it is expected to land. Missiles would then be launched to intercept the enemy threat.
If plans for a missile-defense system go ahead, North Texas would stand to gain. Two missile producers, Loral-Vought Missile Systems of Grand Prairie and Texas Instruments Defense and Electronics Systems of Dallas, would probably figure prominently in such a defense system.
Heeter said programs such as the Joint Strike Fighter could get short shrift in favor of the anti-missile system.
Republicans fear that the United States could be attacked by militants who might have acquired ballistic missiles from former Soviet states or China.
“For all our military might, the United States does not have a defense system capable of fending off incoming ballistic missiles,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. “An effective missile defense system will reduce the temptation among up-and-coming rogue regimes to acquire and use such weapons. In doing so, it would serve as a stabilizing factor in the new post-Cold War world.”
Hutchison joined the GOP presidential nominee-apparent, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia in introducing a bill directing deployment of a national missile system by 2003.
Democrats contend that the bill is aimed at boosting Dole’s presidential campaign.
The Clinton administration is not nearly as enthusiastic as the GOP about such a program. President Clinton vetoed Congress’ defense budget for fiscal 1996 partly because it contained missile-defense provisions.
The administration’s defense budget for fiscal 1997 contains no plans for developing a long-range anti-ballistic missile system. Clinton’s budget does call for spending about $2.8 billion on defenses designed to shoot down short-range missiles fired at U.S. troops overseas.
Loral-Vought, soon to be merged with Lockheed Martin Corp., is developing the next-generation Patriot missile, capable of intercepting incoming missiles. In 1994 the company’s Extended-Range Interceptor beat out an entry from Raytheon Co., the producer of the Patriot, which was used during the Persian Gulf War.
“What the Republicans are proposing is a pipe dream,” said Larry Dickerson, a missile systems expert at Forecast International. The Newtown, Conn., firm studies the defense industry.
Although the Patriot system was touted for countering Iraq’s Scuds, some advanced interceptors have had trouble in development.
In March, the Army announced that its Theater High-Altitude Area Defense missile, which is being developed to destroy missiles in flight, did not hit its target in a test. It was the second such test failure.
Rep. Pete Geren, D-Fort Worth, said a smaller anti-missile system could be built for less than $5 billion and still be effective.
“We could not build a system to protect against a massive attack,” he said. “But in this era, where there has been proliferation of these weapons, we could build a system to protect against a small attack.”
Author: Michael D. Towle; Star-Telegram Writer – Washington Bureau
Copyright 1996 STAR-TELEGRAM INC.