President George W. Bush’s fiscal year 2006 Pentagon budget request, released Feb. 7, calls for scaling back ballistic missile defense funding by almost a billion dollars after it surpassed $10 billion last year. Most of the cut is extracted from development of a new high-speed missile interceptor that is at least several years away from being fielded.
Missile defense spending is spread out among the Army, Air Force, Joint Staff, and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which commands the largest portion of anti-ballistic missile funding. MDA is seeking nearly $7.8 billion for fiscal year 2006 activities beginning October 1.
Total spending in the fiscal year 2006 Pentagon budget request equals $419 billion, but that excludes funds for ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which the administration has supported and plans to continue funding through supplemental appropriation requests. Military operation costs in Afghanistan and Iraq are expected to push defense spending for fiscal year 2006 above half a trillion dollars.
Although the MDA budget is geared toward systems for the present and near term, the request also points to expansive plans for the future. For instance, a relatively small sum of $10 million is set aside to scout a location for a ground-based missile interceptor base in Europe. U.S. officials have been consulting their counterparts in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and possibly other countries about housing such a base. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)
The Army is asking Congress for roughly $856 million for two programs to destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Two-thirds of that sum is to procure 108 Patriot Advanced Capabilty-3 missile interceptors and upgrade existing Patriot systems. The other third is to pursue development of the Medium Extended Air Defense System with Germany and Italy.
Air Force officials are requesting $757 million—an increase of $158 million above what lawmakers granted last year—to help put the Space-Based Infrared System-high program back on track. Intended to send an alert when a ballistic missile is launched anywhere in the world, the satellite system has been plagued by schedule and cost overruns. The Air Force currently does not have an estimate for when the system might become operational.
The smallest slice of the proposed missile defense funding, $81.5 million, is allocated for the Joint Theater Air and Missile Defense Organization of the Joint Staff. Among other responsibilities, this body is charged with evaluating how different systems might function together.
MDA Emphasizing Sooner Rather Than Later
More than half of MDA’s proposed budget is dedicated to three separate programs that are currently deployed or supposed to be fielded within the next few years: the ground-based midcourse defense, the sea-based Aegis system, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). All three systems are slated for ramped-up flight testing this year.
Nearly $2.3 billion is tabbed for testing and building on the ground-based midcourse defense. Last year, MDA deployed six long-range missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and two more at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, as the initial elements of the system. Another 10 interceptors are to be embedded in Alaska this year. These interceptors are designed to destroy enemy missile warheads by colliding with them in space.
Bush and top Pentagon officials had earlier said the system would become operational in 2004, but no such determination has yet been made. Pentagon spokesperson Lawrence Di Rita told reporters Jan. 13, “I don’t know that such a declaration will ever be made.” Still, he added, “we have a nascent operational capability.”
Military commands charged with putting the system through a so-called shakedown to check for bugs that might impair its future operation and devise command and control guidelines for running it have yet to make recommendations on the system’s status. Initiated early last fall, this process was expected to be completed before the end of last year. (See ACT, December 2004.)
Although five successful intercept tests involving a slower substitute version of the system’s interceptor have occurred, the model currently deployed has not been tested against a target in flight. Two attempts have been made—the first on Dec. 15, 2004, and the second on Feb. 14—but in both cases, the interceptor never left the ground. MDA attributed the first failure to a communications problem involving the interceptor’s flight computer, while the second is suspected of stemming from ground support equipment and not the interceptor itself. Two additional flight tests of the interceptor could take place this year.
After a suspension of flight testing of more than a year, MDA has also resumed intercept testing of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system with a successful experiment on Feb. 24. This ship-based system, which has now recorded five hits in six intercept attempts, is designed to counter short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
To advance this naval anti-missile system further, MDA is requesting $836 million. So far, five of the system’s Standard Missile-3 interceptors have been delivered to the Navy, and the goal is to transfer 21 more by the end of fiscal year 2006. By that time, MDA also aims to have finished outfitting 15 ships with upgraded radar capabilities for tracking ballistic missiles in flight. At least four vessels have been refurbished so far.
THAAD also is supposed to resume flight testing this year after a lull going back to August 1999. MDA is asking for slightly more than $1 billion to get the system prepared for intercept testing in 2006. Fired from a truck-based launcher, the THAAD interceptor is to strike short-, medium-, and possibly intermediate-range missiles in the final minutes of their descent.
The Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) program emerged as the big loser among MDA’s programs. After predicting last year that it would seek more than $1 billion for this high-speed interceptor, MDA reduced its request to roughly $230 million, including about $14 million for the Near-Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE).
NFIRE involves launching a satellite into space as soon as late 2006 to track ballistic missile launches for a year. Initial plans then called for shooting a missile toward the satellite and seeing if the satellite could release an onboard interceptor to destroy the missile, but MDA and Congress are still weighing this part of the experiment.
MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner explained in a Feb. 9 interview with Arms Control Today that the KEI cut reflected a decision to emphasize funding for programs closest to yielding working systems. He said the KEI schedule would be set back about a year, postponing the possible fielding of a ground-based version of the interceptor from 2012 to 2013. MDA envisions KEI as being fast enough to shoot down ballistic missiles in the first few minutes after their launch, a period referred to as the boost phase.
Until KEI becomes available, MDA is putting its near-term hopes for a boost-phase missile defense system in the Airborne Laser (ABL), which conceptually is a modified Boeing 747 armed with a powerful laser. In its recent budget request, MDA asked for $465 million for ABL.
Yet, it is unclear when an operational ABL aircraft will become available, according to a program spokesperson. The laser, which successfully produced a laser light for a fraction of a second for the first time using all six of its power sources last November, has yet to be mounted on the aircraft. In a real scenario, the laser would need to be focused on a target for a minimum of eight seconds to destroy it.
Originally scheduled for an initial intercept try in 2003, the system has been beset with so many problems that even strong missile defense supporters have questioned its viability. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said last July, “I’m deeply concerned that program costs may spiral to unanticipated levels which will place ABL in serious danger of survival.”