APS News

Council Authorizes Boost-Phase NMD Study

At its November 19 meeting, acting on the recommendation of a special advisory committee, the APS Council unanimously decided to sponsor a study focusing on the technical issues related to a boost-phase missile defense system. But the study will not get underway until suitable leadership can be found, and will require significant external funding as well.

The motion passed by Council reads as follows:

"That the APS go ahead with the study as proposed by the advisory committee upon:

a. identification of appropriate and willing leadership, and

b. identification of funds sufficient to support the study. If necessary, a contribution by the APS of about $50,000 would be acceptable.

This APS study will concern itself only with the technical feasibility of proposed missile defense systems. In sponsoring this study, the Society takes no position with regard to the wisdom of deployment."

A boost-phase intercept system would seek to destroy the missile during the first minute or two after launch, while the rocket engines are still turned on. The advantage of such a system is that the target is a single rocket, and not a confusing array of warheads and decoys that could be encountered by a mid-course interceptor. The disadvantage is that extremely rapid detection and response are required to effect the interception.

The advisory committee, chaired by Frederick K. Lamb of the University of Illinois, recommended a study of the boost-phase system for several reasons, among them: Basic physical principles can play a significant role in answering the relevant questions; proposals for a boost-phase system are under active consideration; and since the boost-phase option has received less scrutiny than the mid-course system, the APS study can have a greater relative impact.

The committee also recommended strongly that the study be unclassified, in part because only in this way could one hope to complete the study in time to influence the decision-making process, which the committee estimated at nine months. The committee stated its belief that "an unclassified APS study of boost-phase intercept would have a very high degree of credibility because. of the very strong reputation the APS has for conducting careful, objective, and rigorous studies of technical issues." An example is the APS study on the "Science and Technology of Directed-Energy Weapons" that was co-chaired by N. Bloembergen and C. K. N. Patel, published in 1987.

Other members of the Advisory Committee on NMD in addition to Lamb were: John F. Ahearne, W. R. Frazer, Steve Koonin, Kumar C. Patel, Roberta P. Saxon, Jeremiah D. Sullivan, and, ex officio, James S. Langer, George H. Trilling, and Judy Franz.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette