PAUL LEWIS / WASHINGTON DC Despite mixed test results, capability to be extended to offer cover to allies such as UK

US President George Bush has announced plans to begin deploying a land- and sea-based missile defence capability from 2004 to meet a perceived near-term ballistic missile threat, while continuing with a parallel test and development effort to further mature and evolve the system which, to date, has enjoyed only mixed results.

"What we have announced today is a very modest initial interceptor inventory and an investment that provides a useful defence capability, but one that has limitations," says J D Couch, US assistant secretary of defence, international security. The Missile Defence Agency (MDA) to this end is seeking $1.5 billion more in 2004-5 on top of the $8 billion being spent on missile defence annually.

Planning calls for the deployment of six Boeing ground-based midcourse defence (GMD) interceptors at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, Alaska, and another four at Vandenburg AFB, California, by the end of 2004. Ten more GMDs will be added at Fort Greely by the end of 2005. The US Navy will deploy 20 Raytheon Standard SM-3 midcourse missiles aboard three CG-47 Aegis cruisers and the army is accelerating the acquisition of 346 Lockheed Martin Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) missiles.

The three systems provide a layered defence, with GMD intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles, SM-3 countering short- and medium-range missiles, such as the North Korean No-Dong, and PAC-3 used against tactical missiles. To track incoming missiles across the north Pacific, the MDA plans to add a new sea-based X-band radar, as well as upgrading the current Cobra Dane radar on Shemya Island and sensors on 20 Aegis radar-equipped warships.

To detect missiles threats from the Middle East, the US government is seeking Danish and UK permission to upgrade early-warning radar facilities at Thule in Greenland and Fylingdales on the UK east coast by 2005.

Washington at the same time is inviting foreign industrial participation and offering to extend the planned missile- defence coverage to include allied nations. Development work is continuing, with another 68 flight tests and 58 ground tests planned for all systems over the next two years.

Critics of MDA claim that the system is not yet ready, pointing to the failure of three out of the eight GMD flight tests to date, the most recent on 11 December when the Raytheon exoatmospheric kill vehicle failed to separate from the booster.

Boeing is due to select a new off-the-shelf booster from either Lockheed Martin or Orbital Science by next summer in time for the next scheduled test later in 2003.

Source: Flight International