WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp's (LMT.N) chief executive hailed on Tuesday a step toward exploring the feasibility of putting defensive weapons in space as a shield.
"Our company has had an interest in these applications for probably 20 or 25 years," said Robert Stevens, chief executive of the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier by sales.
"And I think it's very important to study what the art of the possible is," Stevens told the Reuters Aerospace and Defense summit in Washington.
The U.S. Congress has approved $5 million for an independent study of possible space-based interceptor missiles as part of the emerging U.S. anti-missile defense.
The study was part of the fiscal 2009 defense spending bill signed into law on Sept. 30 by President Bush. It is the first seed money for potential space-based interceptors since a Democratic-controlled Congress canceled such work in 1993.
Stevens did not discuss adding space-based interceptors to the emerging U.S. ballistic missile shield that links ground- and ship-based interceptors to sensors on land, sea and in space.
He said it made sense to look at protecting such things as communications and navigation satellites given growing U.S. reliance on them for everything from modern combat to Internet connections.
"Given the potential embedded in today's technology it's advisable to study what flexibility we have here," he said, citing a danger of "what some might do relative to neutralizing space-based capabilities."
"I don't know if that's going to result in space-based capabilities or not," he said of the congressionally mandated study. "But it ought to be well thought through, and we ought to do the appropriate amount of investigation and analysis (into) what's technologically feasible."
A pro-space-based missile defense panel called the Independent Working Group has estimated that a space-based system could be tested within three years at a cost of $3 billion to $5 billion.
It recommended deploying 1,000 space-based interceptors at a projected cost of $16.4 billion in 2005 dollars to provide "high-confidence" protection against attacks involving up to 200 warheads.
Critics argue that putting interceptors in space would be much more costly and undercut larger U.S. interests by "weaponizing" space.
A 2003 American Physical Society study found that intercepting a single intercontinental ballistic missile from space would require a five- to ten-fold increase in the United States' annual space-launch capabilities.
Opponents also say the United States stands to lose the most by putting weapons in space.
"It would cost billions of dollars, eat into much more pressing military needs and invite others to weaponize space in turn," said Victoria Samson, a missile-defense expert at the private Center for Defense Information.
(For summit blog: summitnotebook.reuters.com/)
(For more on the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit, see [nN15484870])
(Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Tim Dobbyn)