As part of its fiscal year 2004 budget request, the Bush administration is asking Congress to treat plans to field up to 40 ground- and sea-based missile interceptors before 2006 as part of a research and development program and not as an acquisition program. Some Democratic senators see the move as a Pentagon attempt to begin deploying missile defense systems without subjecting them to rigorous or realistic testing.
President George W. Bush announced December 17, 2002, that the United States would field the initial elements of an evolutionary, multilayered missile defense system in 2004 and 2005. These first elements would include up to 20 ground-based missile interceptors for use against long-range ballistic missiles and 20 sea-based interceptors to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
Both types of interceptors have yet to be subjected to tests resembling real-world scenarios. The Pentagon refers to such testing as operational testing.
U.S. law—section 2399 of Title 10 of the United States Code—requires that major defense systems, defined as any system costing more than $115 million to research and develop, complete operational testing before proceeding past “low-rate initial production.” The Pentagon is requesting more than $9.1 billion in missile defense funding for fiscal year 2004. (See ACT, March 2003.)
Some Democrats in Congress assert that Pentagon plans to deploy up to 40 missile interceptors exceed the understood definition of low-rate initial production, thereby requiring the interceptors to be operationally tested before being fielded. The legal prohibition was crafted to prevent faulty or immature systems from being passed to the armed services.
A spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which oversees missile defense research and development, said that MDA intends to operationally test the missile defense system after the interceptors are fielded. Democratic Senate staffers, however, argue that that process is backwards since the goal of operational testing is to determine whether a weapons system works well enough to merit deployment.
The Pentagon contends it has adopted a new approach, called spiral development, to make weapons systems available to military users earlier in the production process. Strongly criticized by some lawmakers, spiral development calls for fielding weapons systems before they are perfected in order to have some basic capability quickly with the aim of improving systems as time passes.
Although Thomas Christie, the director of the Pentagon’s office of Operational Test and Evaluation, endorsed the general concept of spiral development in his office’s annual review of Pentagon systems under development, he also struck a cautionary note. “I recognize and agree, in principle, with the desire to field new capabilities as soon as possible, but that desire should be tempered with the responsibility to ensure that the weapons will not put Americans at risk,” Christie wrote in a February report to Congress. (See ACT, March 2003.) “We must reinforce the principle that systems that go to war must be tested the way they will be employed,” he added.
At a February 13 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld defended the Pentagon’s plans to deploy missile interceptors prior to their operational testing. “I happen to think that thinking we cannot deploy something…until you have everything perfect, every ‘i’ dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, it’s probably not a good idea,” he testified. “I think we need to get something out there, in the ground, at sea, and in a way that we can test it. We can look at it, we can develop it, we can evolve it, and…learn from the experimentation with it.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sent a February 19 letter to Rumsfeld contesting his position. “I believe that any deployed missile defense system, must meet the same requirements and standards that we set for all other fully operational weapons systems,” she wrote. “I simply do not understand how we can go forward with the deployment of a missile defense system which may or may not work and which the Department of Defense apparently does not believe needs to be fully or realistically tested.”
The dispute comes down to how the Pentagon’s plans for basing up to 40 missiles interceptors in Alaska and California and aboard naval ships beginning in 2004 are to be labeled.
Pentagon officials appear to want it both ways. They would prefer that the interceptors be recognized by Congress as part of a “test bed” for research and development. At the same time, they tout the inherent operational capability of the proposed test bed in public statements, creating the aura of a deployed system.
Congressional critics see the test bed as simply the first stage of a much bigger deployment, which is the impression President Bush made when he declared December 17 that he was “pleased to announce that we will take another important step in countering [the threats of the 21st century] by beginning to field missile defense capabilities to protect the United States, as well as our friends and allies.” These critics charge the Pentagon wants to avoid testing that could reveal the system’s flaws and postpone deployment of the interceptors beyond 2004, which some Democratic legislators have charged is a politically motivated deadline because it is a presidential election year.
Rumsfeld explained in the February 13 hearing that finding the right term to describe the Pentagon’s plans is controversial. “And the words are hot button words because the testing is required before deployment but not before a test bed, and yet the reality is the test bed offers a deployable minimal capability,” Rumsfeld stated.
The Clinton administration had a plan to field a total of 20 ground-based interceptors in Alaska by the end of 2005. The Pentagon described that plan as a deployment.