WASHINGTON – Congress is weighing how much to invest in the fledgling ballistic missile defense system (search), which has suffered setbacks and whose cost could easily top the $150 billion partial price tag the Bush administration has estimated.
The system is a political hot button because, at a time of budget deficit pressures, it's the most expensive defense research and development program. President Bush (search) wants lawmakers to approve $9 billion for the system in the 2006 budget year — $1 billion less than the administration previously planned
The program is meant to protect the country by launching interceptors from land or sea to shoot down missiles fired from overseas. The system is a substantially downscaled version of President Reagan's (search) effort in the mid-1980s, which critics dubbed "Star Wars" for its futuristic weaponry.
Its first eight interceptors have been installed in underground bunkers in Alaska and California. Testing of the system and production of more missiles are continuing.
At a time of worries over the weapons programs of North Korea and Iran, many Republicans and Democrats say they think the system will eventually be an effective line of defense and that a limited ability to shoot down missiles is better than none. These lawmakers fear Bush's latest request won't be enough to continue developing it at the current pace.
"The threat remains real. The American people want their homeland defended, and if they felt these reductions would jeopardize them, they would not be happy with us," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.
Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees missile defense, compared the program's expense to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"One strike against this country cost us about $83 billion, not counting the human suffering," Everett said, using an estimate by the General Accountability Office, an investigative agency of Congress. Still, he acknowledged, "This stuff costs an awful lot of money and we have to have results."
Such lawmakers outnumber critics, mainly Democrats, who question the cost and whether the system ever will work properly. They say more testing is needed after recent failures.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, opposes producing more interceptors unless test results show they can hit incoming targets.
"I just simply want to make sure that ultimately it works," said another Democrat on that panel, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. "We don't know that yet."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, top Democrat on Everett's subcommittee, called himself a strong supporter of missile defense, but said, "I do not think we should give it a blank check or allow it to avoid thorough testing."
Missiles have twice failed to launch from their underground silos during tests. Canada has refused to join the effort. The administration did not declare the system operational by the end of 2004, as it had hoped.
The government has spent about $92 billion on missile defense since 1983. The administration expects to spend $58 billion more over the next six years.
Officials won't put an overall price tag on the system, but outside analysts expect it to far surpass that $150 billion. Groups favoring arms reductions claim the overall price tag could range from $800 billion to $1.2 trillion.
"No doubt, it's going to end up being higher. If they keep spending the way they have been spending on this, absolutely," said Victoria Samson, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information.
Six interceptor missiles are underground at Fort Greely, Alaska, and two are at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The Pentagon wants a total of 18 underground by year's end and hopes to produce 10 more by the end of 2007.
Navy ships aren't yet outfitted with interceptors meant to take down short- and mid-range missiles, although two cruisers may be by the end of this year. Several tests of interceptors launched from a ship have been successful, most recently in February.
At a recent hearing, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, asked Congress to be patient. He acknowledged what he called a few disappointments but said they weren't major setbacks.
"We may stub our toe here or there, but for the most part the program is on track," Obering said.