August 4, 2004
When Congress returns from its August recess, it will find a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report in its in-box that estimates the cost for a boost-phase missile defense system to counter long-range ballistic missiles at between $16 billion and $78 billion. The boost phase is the earliest portion of a ballistic missile's flight, when the missile's booster rocket is still burning. Members of Congress would do well to read the report because it will give them a sense of the technological tradeoffs involved in developing and deploying boost-phase interceptors. Opponents of missile defense in Congress, however, are sure to advocate terminating boost-phase programs based on CBO's cost estimate. Since these programs are all in the development phase, it is impossible to determine their advantages or their precise costs. A congressional decision to terminate boost-phase missile defense interceptor programs on this basis would therefore be premature and exceedingly unwise.
The Bush Administration's missile defense concept is based on a layered defense that would counter ballistic missiles in the boost, midcourse, and terminal stages of flight. Boost-phase programs, however, are lagging behind the mid-course and terminal programs at this time because of a 1993 decision by the Clinton Administration to terminate or downgrade these programs for policy reasons. A decision to field boost-phase missile defenses will not be made this year or next, as these programs are still in the development stage. Were Congress to terminate these development programs again, that decision would be tantamount to rejecting the Bush Administration's missile defense concept before the technology has had a chance to demonstrate its utility.
Congress would do better to accelerate the development of boost-phase technologies, which will incur only a fraction of CBO's estimated costs, and leave the decision of which systems to field to a later date. This course will allow boost-phase technologies to catch up to the midcourse and terminal technologies and help Congress make a better-informed decision of which combination of systems to put into the field. On the same basis, Congress should seek to accelerate development of space-based technologies within the boost-phase program. Currently, the Missile Defense Agency's (MDA) proposed boost-phase development effort is skewed toward surface-based options.
Congress should keep the following specifics in mind about CBO's report on the cost of boost-phase missile defenses when it returns in September:
As a direct result of the federal government's 30-year hiatus on fielding a defense against missile attack-a hiatus that fortunately will likely come to an end this fall-the U.S. missile defense program is lagging behind the threat. It is imperative that the overall missile defense program catch up to the threat and subsequently jump ahead of it. Boost-phase defense options will likely prove critical to achieving these goals. As a result, it would be foolish for Congress to terminate boost-phase defense programs, which are still in the phase of early development, on the basis of cost estimates that include their procurement and operation.
Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
 Congressional Budget Office, "Alternatives for Boost-Phase Missile Defense," July 2004.
 Department of Defense, "Report of the Bottom-Up Review," October 1993, pp. 43-48.
 The Heritage Foundation Commission on Missile Defense, "Defending America: A Plan to Meet the Urgent Missile Threat," March 1999, p. 56.