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Gates Reorienting Missile Defense Programs
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Cole Harvey

The U.S. missile defense program would be refocused and its overall spending would decline under the Obama administration's fiscal year 2010 budget request, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said April 6. At a press conference, Gates said he intends to reorganize the program around short-range missile defense and efforts to counter "rogue" states.

As a result, the Pentagon would not increase the number of ground-based, mid-course strategic missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and would scale back or eliminate two programs-the Airborne Laser (ABL) and Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV)-he said. Overall, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) budget would be reduced by $1.4 billion. In fiscal year 2009, which ends September 30, Congress appropriated $8.85 billion for the agency.

The ABL is a modified Boeing 747 jet aircraft that, once completed, would use a powerful laser to shoot down enemy missiles while they are climbing through the atmosphere. According to a March 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the ABL, which began in 1996, is more than six years behind schedule. The projected budget for completing the program has jumped from an estimate of $724 million in 1996 to $3.6 billion today, the GAO said.

Gates announced that the Department of Defense would cancel the second ABL prototype plane, while shifting the existing aircraft into a research and development role. In announcing the change, Gates said that "the program's proposed operational role is highly questionable."

Gates said he also plans to end the MKV program, citing "its significant technical challenges." The MKV is intended to intercept ballistic missiles during the mid-course phase of flight by firing several independent interceptors from a single booster. The program was designed to overcome an incoming missile's decoys or countermeasures by simultaneously targeting multiple objects. The MDA projected that the MKV would not be ready for deployment until 2017, according to the GAO.

Not every MDA project will need to tighten its belt under Gates' budget. Programs that focus on theater missile defense would be given additional resources. Gates would direct an additional $700 million toward the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) programs. THAAD is a truck-mounted interceptor designed to destroy incoming missiles as they fall to earth during their final phase of flight. The MDA plans to deploy the first THAAD unit, which includes 24 interceptors, in 2010.

The SM-3 is the sea-based interceptor employed aboard ships using the Aegis ballistic missile defense system and is intended to counter intermediate-range ballistic missiles during the mid-course phase of flight. Gates also recommended upgrading an additional six ships to incorporate the Aegis missile defense system, beyond the 18 Aegis-equipped ships already at sea, at a cost of $200 million. Both Aegis and THAAD can be used "to better protect our forces and those of our allies," Gates said.

The reordering of the MDA budget represents a shift toward more flexible regional defenses, according to Gates. At the press conference, he said that although the Pentagon would continue to develop long-range intercept capabilities, "we are adding a significant amount of money...to provide tactical or theater missile defense. We are basically maxing out the production lines for the SM-3 and the THAAD.... So I think that's a real focus here."

 

 

Posted: May 8, 2009