WASHINGTON -- U.S. ground-based interceptor missiles stand a better-than-90-percent chance of thwarting a "rogue nation" ballistic missile attack on the United States in the next five years, the second highest-ranking military officer told Congress on Tuesday.
Giving the most bullish military assessment to date on the Boeing Co-managed system's capabilities, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied "ninety percent plus" when asked the odds of defeating a long-range missile that could be fired by North Korea.
Lisbeth Gronlund, an expert on missile defense at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dismissed his estimate as "irresponsible and based on wishful thinking," not facts.
Cartwright was responding to a question from Senate Armed Services Committee member Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, about what he would tell President Barack Obama about U.S. capabilities against long-range missile attack.
In follow-up remarks, he said his confidence reflected the limited threat foreseeable for the next two to five years from countries like North Korea and Iran, including the number of missiles they could fire in a "salvo."
By contrast, Charles McQueary, who retired as the Pentagon's top independent testing official last month, said in a report in December that flight testing of the so-called Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, "to date will not support a high degree of confidence in its limited capabilities."
Chicago-based Boeing is the prime contractor for the GMD system, which President Barack Obama wants to cap for now at 30 interceptor missiles in underground silos in Alaska and California cued by satellites, radar stations and other sensors.
GMD was deployed for the first time four years ago at the core of a layered, multibillion-dollar defense against missiles that could be tipped with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.
The system's top subcontractors include Northrop Grumman Corp, Raytheon Co, Lockheed Martin Corp and Orbital Sciences Corp.
Gronlund, senior scientist and co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security program, said there was no basis for Cartwright's 90-percent-plus confidence.
Flight tests to date, she said, had been "highly scripted and the system has not been tested under realistic conditions."
Any country that could field a long-range missile could use decoys and other countermeasures that would be able to fool the U.S. interceptors, Gronlund added in an emailed reply to Reuters.
Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, who also testified before the Senate Armed Services panel, said North Korean and Iranian missiles presented "a very real and growing threat" to the United States.
Both Iran and North Korea had shown "predilections" to transfer ballistic missiles as well as missile know-how to third parties, Lynn said, terming this "a very unsettling and dangerous prospect."
The Obama administration is seeking $7.8 billion for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency in the 2010 budget year, down about $1.2 billion from 2009. For missile defense overall, it is proposing $9.3 billion, including funds for the Army's Patriot PAC-3 program.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee said in a statement prepared by staff that North Korea could launch no more than one or two long-range ballistic missiles at any one time for now, and Iran has not yet tested a missile capable of reaching the United States.
"These threats are unlikely to change dramatically in the next five years," the staff added in what the committee called a Missile Defense Fact Sheet.
The 30 GMD interceptors to be deployed in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, under Obama's plan are "more than enough to counter this threat," the statement said.
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