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October 17, 2008

Pentagon To Explore Space-Based Missile Defenses

Congress has approved a $5 million study of space-based missile defenses. This is the first time the development of space weapons will be considered since similar work was canceled in the 1990s.

"Approval of the study highlights the need to provide comprehensive protection from the growing threat of missile attack and to limit the vulnerability of vital satellites to attack," said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and a key supporter of missile defenses.

Kyl told the senate: "We have the potential to expand our space-based capabilities from mere space situational awareness to space protection."

He said a total of 27 nations now have missile defenses, and last year, over 120 foreign nations fired ballistic missiles. He added that North Korea and Iran both are developing missiles and selling the technology for them.

The Pentagon's annual report expressed concerns about accidental or unauthorized launches of long-range missiles from China and about the growing vulnerability of vital satellite systems to attack by anti-satellite weapons, as shown by China's 2007 anti-satellite weapons test, Kyl said.

He now hopes Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will choose the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research center, to carry out the study.

Independent groups that could produce it include Energy Department national laboratories, or scientific and technical organizations.

The first Bush administration was the last to consider space-based missile defenses as part of its Global Protection Against Limited Strike, or GPALS, a missile-defense plan focused on then-Soviet missiles using a combination of ground-based interceptors, sea-based missiles and space-based interceptors, a defense official said.

The Clinton administration canceled all work on space-based missile defense and focused instead on tactical defenses against short-range missiles.

The missile-defense program under the current Bush administration is limited to the deployed ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California and ship-based interceptor missile defense.

Space-based defenses are needed for global, rapid defense against missiles, according to the defense official"”speaking anonymously. "It's really the only way to defend the U.S. and its allies from anywhere on the planet," the official said.

The threat from improvised explosive devices, IEDs, is real and growing as a combination of insurgents and other armed factions continue to pose a major challenge to U.S. and allied efforts to help stabilize the country, said one military officer in Afghanistan.

Such threats include the ousted Taliban and al Qaeda members in addition to warlords and drug-trafficking militia groups.

The officer said we're dealing with rival political factions that are very tribal based, and the tribes here are a complex milieu ethnically and by clans and families. "You also have blood feuds that feed into some anti-government forces."

The officer also noted there's the $4 billion yielded annually by the Afghan opium trade and the equivalent of South American drug cartels with armed forces who hold anti-government political views, and the situation becomes even more complex.

"The IED threat is real and growing, along with the occasional rocket," the officer said.

Developing institutions from the national level down to the local level is the biggest challenge to stabilizing Afghanistan, something that is likely to take 20 years.

China military affairs specialist Richard Fisher says China appears to be secretly working on the development of strategic missile defenses.

Reports from China indicate that China continued work on an anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system that was supposedly halted after development in the 1960s.

He said China's anti-satellite missile, the SC-19, is likely part of the ABM system, and unlike the fixed interceptors used in the U.S. ABM system, the Chinese ABM will use mobile missiles like the SC-19.

Fisher believes the Chinese ABM programs are an indication that China's diplomatic efforts to ban weapons in space are a "propaganda campaign intended to limit or delay defensive programs of others.

He estimates that China is moving toward an expanded nuclear force of 120 missiles that, with multiple warheads, could give China a force of up to 500 warheads. Other Chinese goals are space-warfare weapons, advanced combat jets, aircraft carriers and large amphibious forces.

"What the current American leadership, both in the military and intelligence community, is not telling us is that China is on a track to become a global competitor with the U.S. in the 2020s," Fisher said.

"By that time, they will be well on their way to assembling all the elements of global power that we have today, and we need to prepare for this threat now."

And in Iran, it will soon have the capability of creating a "virtual" nuclear weapon in January, according to a private nuclear-arms watchdog group.

Iran has a bank of centrifuges that are producing low-enriched uranium that can be used for nuclear reactors but that also can be recirculated through the centrifuges to make bomb fuel, reported the assessment by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

The group stated in a report made public Wednesday that the re-circulation raises the concentration of the uranium isotope U-235, which fissions in nuclear weapons such as the one dropped on Hiroshima.

The Wisconsin Project estimates that by inauguration day, Iran could have enough U-235 to fuel one bomb quickly, based on the amount of low-enriched uranium Iran has stockpiled, and the amount it is believed to be producing each month, the report said.

The time frame would be two to three months to raise the level of U-235 from 3.8 percent enrichment to 90 percent.

However, Iran's government has denied that its uranium-enrichment program is directed toward building weapons. Some experts believe there is no firm evidence that the country has mastered the technology to weaponize enriched uranium.

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