During congressional hearings held in late February and early March, top Pentagon officials sketched out U.S. ballistic missile defense plans for the first time this year, receiving a warm welcome from Republican lawmakers but a cooler reception from Democrats, who voiced concerns about the Bush administration’s $7.8 billion missile defense spending request.
Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told senators and representatives at separate hearings that the Pentagon aimed to put missile defense capabilities “in play as soon as practicable,” with the goal of having limited protection against long-range ballistic missiles as early as 2004.
To accomplish this task, Kadish said the Pentagon would be willing to deploy prototypes and test assets if necessary and to add to or upgrade them as time passed, an approach the Pentagon describes as “spiral development.” Decisions to deploy test assets would depend on a number of factors, including the success of testing programs and the “international security environment,” according to the general’s prepared testimony.
Exactly which systems will be fielded remains undetermined because the current missile defense program calls for research and development without specific deployment plans. Appearing with Kadish at a March 7 hearing of the strategic subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told senators that “we don’t know what we’re going to buy.”
Yet the Pentagon does have ideas on what types of defenses it wants. In public statements and published excerpts of a secret January Pentagon report called the nuclear posture review, the Pentagon reveals it is hoping to have “near-term emergency [missile defense] capabilities” consisting of a single plane armed with a laser to shoot down missiles early in their flight, a rudimentary ground-based defense of five missile interceptors based in Alaska, and a single ship-based system that could attempt intercepting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles as they travel through space.
The nuclear posture review projects that beginning in 2006 the United States could deploy up to two or three Airborne Laser aircraft, four sea-based missile defense ships, and additional ground-based missile interceptor sites. By 2008 the Theater High Altitude Area Defense, a separate ground-based system that protects against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles during their last minutes of flight, might also be ready.
Because it claims to have no current procurement plans—aside from the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 system, which is currently being operationally tested and procured by the Army—the Pentagon did away with operational requirements documents (ORDs) for the missile defense program. These Pentagon papers define in advance what a system will look like and what capabilities it will have, and they set out specific criteria to determine if a system is ready to be purchased.
Describing the documents as “not appropriate” for missile defense at this stage, Aldridge defended the decision to do away with ORDs at a March 13 hearing of the strategic subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He explained that, even if a potential system fell short of meeting a specific marker, such as hypothetically being able to intercept only eight missiles in six minutes instead of 10 missiles in five minutes, it could still add to a U.S. defense and should be considered for deployment with the aim of gradually improving its performance.
Once a particular missile defense system is transferred to one of the military services to procure and field, however, ORDs will be drawn up, according to Pentagon officials.
While Republicans in both legislative chambers commended the Pentagon on its efforts, many Democrats challenged whether missile defense funding could not be better spent on other programs that defend against more urgent threats, such as terrorist attacks, and if the Pentagon approach could lead to deployment of systems unable to do their job.
At a February 27 joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Marty Meehan (D-MA) criticized the Pentagon’s proposed spiral development approach as last being used by the Soviet Union and condemned it as a “buy first, think later” acquisition policy. Although describing missile defense efforts as “valid,” Meehan expressed concern that the Bush administration was “shortchanging the war on terrorism” for missile defense spending.
Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) shared similar worries at the March 13 hearing. He told Pentagon officials that their approach of fielding systems and then adding to them might invite the Pentagon to “dumb down standards.”
A Democratic staffer on the House side summed up congressional reactions to the hearings as being in the “eyes of the beholder.” He said that the lack of detailed Pentagon plans makes it very difficult to tell American taxpayers what they are getting for nearly $8 billion a year in missile defense spending. He also noted that the first strategic defenses are scheduled to be available in 2004, which happens to be when the next presidential election takes place. “This is purely a political deployment,” the staffer asserted.