From the Sea: National Missile Defense Is Neither Cheap Nor Easy

September 6, 2000 • Foreign Policy Briefing No. 60

Sea‐​based missile defense is being advocated as an alternative to the Clinton administration’s limited land‐​based national missile defense (NMD), which is in the early stages of testing. Proponents of sea‐​based NMD (which is only a concept, not a program) argue that such a system can be deployed more quickly and will be less expensive than the Clinton administration’s land‐​based system. Some argue that the Navy Theater Wide (NTW) system–which is being designed to provide midcourse intercept capability against slower, shorter‐​range theater ballistic missiles–can be upgraded to attack long‐​range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in their boost phase (when under powered flight at the beginning of their trajectories). Interestingly enough, advocates of sea‐​based NMD include not only traditional supporters of missile defense but also people who were previously opposed to missile defense.

The claims made about sea‐​based NMD and boost‐​phase intercept capability should be viewed skeptically. The current NTW system does not have boost‐​phase capability against ICBMs. The NTW interceptor cannot be easily and cheaply modified to provide such capability. In fact, a new interceptor would have to be designed and built, and a faster, larger interceptor with boost‐​phase capability might not be compatible with the vertical launchers on Aegis ships. Moreover, the technological problems associated with sea‐​based NMD are compounded by operational issues.

Finally, sea‐​based NMD is really not a “national” missile defense system; it is the first step to a much larger and more expensive global missile defense system. Thus, the claims that sea‐​based NMD is inexpensive do not ring true. Even if initial costs of sea‐​based NMD are relatively low (which is a doubtful proposition), the follow‐​on costs to deploy space‐​based defenses will be significantly greater–in all likelihood by an order of magnitude or more–and certainly much greater than the cost of a limited land‐​based system.

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