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October 9, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

Space-based defense
Congress voted recently to approve $5 million for a study of space-based missile defenses, the first time the development of space weapons will be considered since similar work was canceled in the 1990s.

Appropriation of the money for the study was tucked away in a little-noticed provision of the Continuing Resolution passed recently by Congress and followed two years in which Congress rejected $10 million sought for the study.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and a key supporter of missile defenses, said 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.

"We have the potential to expand our space-based capabilities from mere space situational awareness to space protection," Mr. Kyl said in a Senate floor speech.

"In the past 15 years, the ballistic missile threat has substantially increased and is now undeniable," he said on Sept. 29.

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

Mr. Kyl also said 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.

Mr. Kyl said he hopes Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who will choose what government or private-sector agency will conduct the study, will choose the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research center, to carry out the study.

A Senate report on the study stated that independent groups that could produce it include Energy Department national laboratories, or scientific and technical organizations.

A defense official said space-based missile defenses were last considered during the first Bush administration 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. The Clinton administration canceled all work on space-based missile defense and focused instead on tactical defenses against short-range missiles.

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

The defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said space-based defenses are needed for global, rapid defense against missiles. "It's really the only way to defend the U.S. and its allies from anywhere on the planet," the official said.

Afghan report
A military officer in Afghanistan says 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.

The threat landscape is wide and varied and includes the ousted Taliban and al Qaeda members in addition to warlords and drug-trafficking militia groups.

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

Add to the mix 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 officer said.

U.S. and foreign embassies and Afghan government facilities in Kabul are highly fortified like "Fort Apache," the officer said.

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

The biggest challenge to stabilizing Afghanistan is developing institutions from the national level down to the local level, something that is likely to take 20 years. "For perspective, imagine Afghanistan postured like Cambodia only a few years removed from the killing fields," he said, referring to the post-Vietnam War massacres carried out by the Cambodian communist Khmer Rouge. "We are dealing with not even basic literacy across large swaths of the population."

China missile defense
China appears to be secretly working on the development of strategic missile defenses, China military affairs specialist Richard Fisher states in a new book on China's military modernization.

Mr. Fisher states in "China's Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach," out this week, that reports from China indicate that China continued work on an anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system that was supposedly halted after development in the 1960s.

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, he states.

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," the book states.

Mr. Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, compiled more than a decade of interviews and Chinese data for the book, which has some provocative findings.

For example, Mr. Fisher 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, he wrote.

"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," Mr. Fisher said in an interview. "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."

Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong had no immediate comment on the book or China's missile defenses.

Iran nuclear program
A private nuclear-arms watchdog group issued a report this week that concludes that Iran will have the capability of creating a "virtual" nuclear weapon in January.

The assessment by the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control states that 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.

"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 group stated in a report made public Wednesday.

"Based on the amount of low-enriched uranium Iran has stockpiled, and the amount it is believed to be producing each month, the Wisconsin Project estimates that by inauguration day, Iran could have enough U-235 to fuel one bomb quickly," the report said, noting that the time frame would be two to three months to raise the level of U-235 from 3.8 percent enrichment to 90 percent.

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

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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