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COST OF `STAR WARS' COULD SKYROCKET, GAO SAYS

The cost of the multibillion-dollar Strategic Defense Initiative could rise substantially because of the military's continuing interest in developing space-based missile interceptors, Congress' investigative agency says.

The General Accounting Office, in a report released Tuesday, found two major problems with the SDI Organization's pursuit of integrating the interceptors in the missile defense system.The SDIO's work comes despite Congress' passage of the Missile Defense Act of 1991 that stressed ground-based systems, with space-based interceptors seen as a possible option in the future.

The GAO said that if the Pentagon agency pursues integrating the interceptors and they are never deployed, costly work on design and engineering will have been wasted.

On the other hand, if the work is not done and the decision is made to incorporate space-based interceptors, redesign and re-engineering also will prove costly.

"Including or excluding integration capabilities for space-based interceptors in the missile defense system architecture has significant design and cost implications, but to what degree is unknown," the GAO said.

Maj. Mike Doble, a Pentagon spokesman in the SDI office, said Defense Department officials had not seen the final report late Tuesday and would have no comment. However, the program's director defended its strategy to GAO officials.

The report was released by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Government Operations Committee.

Conyers criticized the Pentagon for "following a high-risk strategy that could result in still more schedule delays, escalating costs and performance problems. The Missile Defense Act is a failure."

The United States has invested $28 billion in SDI, commonly known as Star Wars, since President Ronald Reagan proposed the system nine years ago to protect the nation against ballistic missile attacks.