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Banner Year For US Missile Defense Plans

File image of the LockMart Pac3 in action.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Jan 03, 2007
The year 2006 was a banner one for ballistic missile defense, both in the United States and for U.S. allies around the world. It was a year when demanding tests worked, when major engineering challenges were met and when more major nations than ever before signed on to serious commitments to develop BMD defenses.

For the United States and the Bush administration, September was the stand-out month of a stand-out year. A Ground-based Midcourse Interceptor fired from Vandenberg Aor Force Base in California successfully intercepted and destroyed a target incoming ICBM fired from Kodiak, Alaska.

The achievement followed years of delays and unsuccessful tests and was a triumph for the renewed emphasis on engineering fundamentals that U.S. Missile Defense Agency Director Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering and his project director, Brig. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, had insisted upon to upgrade the GBI program. Following the success of the test, Gen. O'Reilly, who has been selected for promotion to major-general, was chosen to be the next deputy director of the MDA, making him the frontrunner to be Gen. Obering's successor.

Also in September, Marshall Billingslea, NATO"s assistant secretary-general for defense investment, announced that the 26-nation alliance had approved the construction of a $90 million BMD command-and-control system over the next six years. The size of the investment was relatively small. But the decision marked an epochal step forward by the Atlantic Alliance organization whose members had previously been leery of committing themselves to BMD.

Also, in 2006, Poland and the Czech Republic expressed their interest in hosting BMD interceptor bases to protect Western European nations from possible attacks by Iran. The announcements, however, angered Russia and Russian leaders responded with a series of warnings about the dangers of escalating strategic tensions in Central Europe.

It was a year when more nations than ever signed on to the BMD vision. Stephen Harper, Canada's bold new conservative prime minister, defied predictions that he would be hamstrung by his lack of an overall parliamentary majority in Ottawa. He renewed and greatly expanded and strengthened Canada's venerable NORAD treaty with the United States and carefully started to explore areas where the two countries might cooperate on BMD.

India suffered a major disappointment when its ambitious Agni III intercontinental ballistic missile exploded after take off on a test flight. But later in the year, India joined the BMD interceptor club when a heavily modified Prithvee missile intercepted and destroyed a rocket target over the Bay of Bengal.

After North Korea tested six intermediate range missiles successfully in a single day on July 4, Japan's defense planners approved a vastly expanded and accelerated BMD cooperation program with the United States. Junichiro Koizumi, the visionary Japanese prime minister who had pushed through the far reaching U.S.-Japanese strategic alliance on BMD during his historic five-year premiership, retired. But his handpicked successor, Shinzo Abe, lost no time in making clear he was determined to pick up where Koizumi left off and continue to back BMD to the hilt.

Even South Korea, which previously had been reluctant to invest significantly in BMD development, changed course towards the end of the year with reports in Seoul newspapers detailing a bold new commitment to developing very short-range BMD defenses. Meanwhile Taiwan pushed ahead with ambitious plans to deploy a large nuclear-capable cruise missile capability as a deterrent to the missile build up against it across the Taiwan Strait from the People's Republic of China.

The year, however, was also a year when the ballistic missile threat around the world steadily grew. Eight nations had, or pushed towards, intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities. North Korea successfully tested an underground nuclear device but its attempt to test fire a Taepodong-2 ICBM on July 4 failed. Iran too pushed ahead relentlessly towards developing its own nuclear capabilities. Russian officials publicly pledged to accelerate work on completing the Bushehr nuclear reactor complex for Iran.

Russia, its treasury filled with oil and gas exporting revenues, continued on its ambitious modernization plans for its ICBM program. The Russians also invested in upgrading their BMD radar defenses. Three Russian ICBM tests failed throwing some doubts on the reliability of the Bulava submarine launched ICBM.

In the summer, Israel got a nasty surprise when Hezbollah multiple rocket mortars -- an operational design in widespread use for more than 60 years -- fired more than a thousand missiles into northern Israel during the conflict in southern Lebanon. Casualties were light, but the experience prompted Israeli defense planners and high-tech contractors to look with their American counterparts at developing defense systems capable of shooting down short range ballistic missiles.

The year ended with the takeover of both houses of the U.S. Congress by the Democrats, prompting fears in the U.S. BMD community that the new 110th Congress might want to cut or even gut BMD development. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was at pains to deny such intentions. He made clear he wanted to streamline the U.S. defense budget and establish effective congressional oversight of costly defense programs, but not at the expense of destroying or crippling them.

It was a year of achievement and a year of growing threats. Most of all, it was a year when the political and strategic case for BMD was more widely accepted in more countries than ever before.

Source: United Press International

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