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Global Strike Plan Bombs in Congress
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Global Strike Plan Bombs in Congress

Wade Boese

Congress made deep cuts in a Pentagon plan to switch the payloads of some nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to conventional munitions as lawmakers moved toward finishing fiscal year 2007 defense spending bills. By contrast, a variety of anti-missile projects and programs to secure and dismantle excess weapons in the former Soviet Union emerged relatively unscathed.

The full Senate began debating its version of the defense appropriations bill in late July, but the deliberations were interrupted by the annual August congressional recess. Once the Senate completes action on the military spending measure, which the Senate Appropriations Committee passed July 20, it will then need to be reconciled with the $427 billion version of the defense appropriations bill that the House passed June 20 on a 407-19 vote. The measure covers expenditures for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

The two chambers also must work out differences between their separate defense authorization bills. Senators unanimously passed their version of the bill June 22, a month after their House counterparts. (See ACT, June 2006.) An authorization bill sets policy guidance and spending ceilings, while an appropriation bill allocates specific amounts of funding.

Although the authorization and appropriations bills are not yet law, some budget winners and losers are evident.

Lawmakers dealt a setback to an initiative to quickly deploy a conventional capability to attack targets anywhere in the world in less than an hour. The Bush administration had requested $127 million to begin pursuing its Prompt Global Strike plan by outfitting two dozen SLBMs with conventional warheads instead of nuclear payloads. (See ACT, March 2006.)

The House chopped the administration’s request down to $30 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee was less generous, providing only $5 million to study the concept. On Aug. 3, senators, by a vote of 67-31, rejected a proposal by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to restore $77 million to the program.

Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), generally a strong supporter of defense spending, was among several senators who spoke out against Sessions’ amendment. Stevens expressed concern that the launch of a conventional SLBM could be misinterpreted by other governments as a nuclear strike and might lead to “risky, even reckless strikes, rather than deliberate, clearly thought-out action.”

U.S. Strategic Command spokesperson Julie Ziegenhorn informed Arms Control Today Aug. 22 that if the reduced funding holds for the project, it would probably prevent the project from being realized as “expeditiously as the department had planned.” Yet, she said Strategic Command, which is in charge of the project, would continue to promote it because the concept “gives our leadership a viable option that shifts away from size, predictability, and mass toward agility, speed, and precision.”

Stevens’ panel was more charitable with the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), matching the agency’s $9.3 billion request, but it did shift some of the funding around. In a July 25 report, the committee explained that “MDA is investing too much funding in future systems and technology in advance of adequate testing and fielding of currently available technology.”

House members, who approved $9 billion for MDA, criticized the agency for liberally moving funding from one program to another without consulting Congress. Consequently, the House is demanding that MDA report more precisely on and stick with its future funding plans.

The largest share of that funding for the near term will likely flow to the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD), the primary components of which currently are 11 missile interceptors deployed in Alaska and two more in California. These interceptors were put on alert when North Korea began missile test preparations in June.

Although the only longer-range missile North Korea fired in July failed shortly after launch, President George W. Bush told reporters July 7, “We had a reasonable chance of shooting it down.” He added, “At least that’s what the military commanders told me.”

Yet, the deployed interceptors had not destroyed a target in a flight test as of Aug. 31, a shortcoming many in Congress want remedied. Partly toward this end, the Senate appropriations panel approved $225 million extra for “additional test infrastructure enhancements, operational support, and interceptors.”

Some of this additional funding will also support the Aegis ship-based system and the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system, which on July 12 scored its first hit against a target since emerging from a redesign initiated in 1999. These two systems are designed to strike missiles with a range below the long-range threshold of 5,000 kilometers.

Congress appears less favorably disposed toward the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. The satellites in the system are intended to help interceptors discriminate between a warhead and any decoys or debris. The House shaved the administration’s $390 million request by $67 million, while Senate appropriators cut $75 million.

The Senate panel also nearly halved the $405 million request for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor to $205 million. The House did not touch the funding request for the program, which involves developing a powerful interceptor to destroy missiles within the first few minutes of their flight.

Another divergence between the two chambers centers on administration plans to deploy GMD interceptors to Europe. (See ACT, July/August 2006.) The House eliminated the $119 million supporting this action, but the Senate panel fully backed the move.

In recent months, U.S. officials have visited and consulted with their counterparts in the Czech Republic and Poland about hosting the interceptors. MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner told Arms Control Today Aug. 22 that a site recommendation would likely be made within “30 to 60 days.” He ruled out reports that the United Kingdom was being considered, saying that “[i]t will be in Eastern Europe, if anywhere.”

Once fiercely contested in Congress, missile defense spending does not spark as much debate as it did several years ago, but some in Congress still get fired up about the issue. Declaring missile defenses as “nothing but a pipe dream,” Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) argued June 20 that “throwing good money after bad will do little to make Ronald Reagan’s Cold War fantasy a reality.” In contrast, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) convened a July 11 press conference to hail missile defense and blast its critics, remarking that “it’s time for the Democrats to stop fighting the ghost of Ronald Reagan.”

Lawmakers appear more in concert on the Pentagon’s long-standing programs to help countries of the former Soviet Union secure and eliminate their weapons arsenals. The administration’s $372 million request received the blessing of the Senate panel and the full House.

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.

 

Posted: September 1, 2006