The schedule for the Navy's Area missile defense program faces significant delays, according to a recent Pentagon comptroller report. The November report damages the case of experts pushing for a rapid deployment of naval-based national missile defenses.

While the Area program is only intended to provide defenses for naval vessels and coastal areas such as port facilities, the Navy asserts that more ambitious programs like sea-based national missile defenses will "build upon the previous successes of the Navy Area lower-tier TBMD Program."

Security analysts, commentators, and Republican Presidential candidate George W. Bush have all voiced support for sea-based national missile defenses, arguing that it would be relatively simple and cost-effective to build off of the Area program and other naval defense systems.

The Navy has already modified two of its Aegis-class cruisers to conduct at-sea tests of the Area systems. An October 30 Defense News article reported that Naval officials believed the "unique demands" of these tests could allow the Navy to "field a theater ballistic missile defense quickly, once the technology was tested."

Other experts have been more skeptical, including the former head of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, Gen. Lester Lyles. Lyles testified to the Senate last year that sea-based missile defenses "will not be the quick, cheap or easy solution that some outside advocates may have advertised." On November 29, the Army's top missile defense officer, Lt. Gen. Joseph Costello, told a Center for Naval Analyses conference that most of the Navy's proposals remained on the drawing board, and that any sea-based missile defense system would only be able to defend a limited area. In his 6 September Inside Missile Defense article "Lost at Sea" Project Director Joseph Cirincione noted that "sea-based national missile defense systems have become the most discussed and least understood of all proposed missile defense projects … sea-based national defense systems face major technological uncertainties, cannot be deployed for at least a decade and could prove prohibitively expensive."

The Pentagon's comptroller appears to share at least some of these doubts. In a report cited by the November 29 Inside Missile Defense, the comptroller says that the Navy's Area missile defense program is over a year behind schedule "due to the technical challenges of integrating theater ballistic missile defense capability into the block IV A missile." The block IV A, a modification to the Standard missile class already used for a variety of roles on over 100 Navy ships, would be used by the Area system to intercept enemy missiles. These "technical challenges" will likely force the Navy to push back system's planned deployment date of 2003. The report notes that the current testing schedule is already "highly compressed" in an effort to meet this deadline.

The Area system has shown some promise. An August 24 flight-test of the Block IVA conducted on land was successful. However, the report raises questions about how soon it can be deployed at sea, questions that affect the debate on the cost and effectiveness of more robust missile defenses based on Area technology.