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– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Missile Defense Remains Budget Priority
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Wade Boese

Anti-missile programs have been a consistent Bush administration funding favorite, and its recent budget request to Congress continues the trend. All told, the Pentagon is seeking approximately $10.8 billion for its various missile defense projects.

The full Department of Defense fiscal year 2008 spending submission equals $623 billion and is supposed to fund all military activities, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for the year beginning Oct. 1. But the Pentagon also asked lawmakers Feb. 5 for an extra $93 billion to bridge an estimated spending shortfall through Oct. 1, primarily to maintain ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Most of the proposed future missile defense funding is part of the $75 billion research, development, test, and evaluation portion of the Pentagon budget because many of the systems are works in progress. The task of readying them for action rests primarily with the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

The MDA initially planned this year to ask for $9.3 billion, the same amount as last year’s budget request, but the Pentagon instructed the agency to shave $500 million. Still, the leftover $8.8 billion bid stands as the third largest ever for the MDA or its predecessors and accounts for roughly 80 percent of all proposed fiscal year 2008 missile defense spending.

About one-half of the MDA funds are dedicated to the agency’s three anti-missile systems undergoing or on the verge of deployment. The rudimentary, long-range Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) is allocated the largest slice of the budget, at $2.5 billion. The ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System and the ground-mobile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) are allotted $1 billion and $858 million, respectively. These two systems are geared toward stopping short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles, but the MDA hopes ultimately to upgrade them to counter long-range missiles too.

The $2 billion in non-MDA missile defense spending is dispersed among the Air Force, Army, and Joint Staff. Almost one-half of this amount, $912.5 million, is on tap for the Army’s short- and medium-range ballistic missile defense system, the Patriot, which has a mixed battlefield record. (See ACT, November 2003. ) The Army intends to allocate nearly $473 million for purchasing 108 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors. By the end of this year, the Army PAC-3 inventory is projected to number some 540 interceptors.

The Air Force aims to spend $587 million for the Space-Based Infrared System-high (SBIRS-high) program and $231 million on the Alternative Infrared Space System. Both satellite constellations are intended to spot ballistic missile launches around the world. The Air Force initiated the second program last year because of concerns about the rising costs and technical viability of SBIRS, although its initial orbiting sensor is reportedly performing well.

The MDA hopes that one of the Air Force systems can eventually be paired with the MDA’s own nascent Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) to provide seamless and precise tracking of hostile ballistic missiles worldwide. The MDA is seeking $331.5 million for the program, which is supposed to launch two demonstration satellites this year. But the STSS also has been prone to delays. Indeed, the MDA reported in January that the launch of possible follow-on satellites to the first duo have slipped at least four years to 2016.

The MDA has touted SBIRS and the STSS as key data contributors to the agency’s signature GMD system. Under orders from President George W. Bush, the MDA fielded the first GMD interceptor in July 2004 despite the system’s sparse and spotty testing record. More than two years later, the MDA scored the first and, to date, only intercept of a target in flight using an interceptor model the same as those deployed. (See ACT, October 2006. )

As of the end of February, 14 GMD interceptors were emplaced in Alaska and another two stationed in California. The MDA aims to raise the total to roughly two dozen by the end of this year and up to 54 by 2011, including 10 in Europe.

Similarly, the MDA is looking to build up its sea-based component, the Aegis defense, which has scored seven hits in nine intercept tests. Seven warships are now outfitted with the Aegis missile defense engagement capability, and three more are supposed to join their ranks this year. The MDA envisions up to 18 vessels armed with a total of 83 interceptors sailing the world’s waters by 2011.

The MDA aims to add THAAD interceptors to the deployment mix by 2009. After experiencing a seven-year intercept testing hiatus, THAAD has hit targets in two recent experiments, the latest on Jan. 27. THAAD interceptors are designed to collide with enemy ballistic missiles as they descend toward the ground.

The agency also is trying to perfect two systems to counter missiles shortly after their launch, when they are still ascending. But both projects, the Airborne Laser (ABL) and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), pose significant engineering and technical challenges.

The MDA recently pushed back by a year to 2009 the first shoot-down attempt of a target in flight by the ABL aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 equipped with a powerful laser. This is six years later than originally scheduled.

Indeed, the Bush administration initiated the fast accelerating, ground-based KEI in 2003 as a possible ABL replacement. Now the KEI is experiencing similar problems. Its potential operational availability has moved back four years to 2014.

Still, the agency is currently standing by both programs. The MDA is seeking nearly $549 million for the ABL and $227.5 million for the KEI. MDA spokesperson Rick Lehner told Arms Control Today Feb. 20 that KEI bore much of the agency’s $500 million cut.

The other program primarily affected was the agency’s proposed space-based test bed. This project calls for deploying and testing by around 2012 a few satellites armed with interceptors. The MDA had slated $45 million for initiating work but slashed it to $10 million. Future annual funding is projected to climb to $124 million in fiscal year 2013.

The MDA nearly doubled funding this year for another futuristic effort, the Multiple Kill Vehicle. Slotted for $271 million, this program aims to develop kill vehicles small enough so several can fit on a single interceptor. This capability, which is supposed to be ready for flight by 2012, would lessen the requirement for satellites or interceptors to try and discriminate an actual warhead from any decoys or other countermeasures employed to confuse a defense.

Critics say that the MDA’s anti-missile systems, most notably the GMD, are vulnerable to decoys and countermeasures. They contend tests must be made more challenging by conducting them under greater real-world conditions and against more realistic targets.

The Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, the Pentagon’s independent weapons testing office, shares a similar view. In an annual survey of arms programs, the office recently described the U.S. missile defense capability as “very basic” but “increasing.” Although the office assessed the MDA as conducting “disciplined ground and flight testing,” it noted that the programs need “additional flight test data under stressing conditions…to increase confidence in the models, simulations, and assessment of system capability.”

At least one lawmaker, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), is almost certain to pay careful attention to the testing reporting. Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Levin has been critical of the Pentagon’s missile defense approach. “I think it’s a mistake to purchase all of the missiles before we know that they’re going to work,” he told reporters last November.

If Levin’s remarks are any indicator, the Bush administration may find its latest missile defense spending proposal to be a tougher sell this year with Congress under Democratic control than it has been in previous years when Republicans ruled.