"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Missile Defense Budget Boosts Requested

Wade Boese

Heading into its final year in office, the Bush administration is asking Congress to give a spending boost to anti-missile systems, particularly a controversial project to extend systems to Europe. Although missile defenses have been a constant funding favorite of the administration, a recent Pentagon report found capabilities remain limited.

All told, the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2009 baseline budget request of $515.4 billion contains approximately $12.7 billion for anti-missile programs, a $1.9 billion increase above the previous request. Fiscal year 2009 begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, 2009.

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) accounts for the greatest share of the funding, with requests totaling some $8.89 billion. It is also slated for an additional $445 million in military construction and Base Realignment and Closure spending. Congress granted the agency $8.7 billion last year, which is approximately $185 million less than the amount originally sought by the administration.

Major slices of the proposed missile defense funding are slated for programs directed by the Army and the Air Force. The Army is seeking nearly $986 million for developing and procuring the Patriot and related systems. More than half that total will go toward buying 108 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors, which are designed to counter short- and medium-range missiles near the end of their flights. The Patriot anti-missile system is the only one that is battle-tested, and the results were mixed. (See ACT, November 2003. )

The Air Force is asking for $2.3 billion to advance its Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite constellation for pinpointing ballistic missile launches worldwide. Nearly $1.8 billion of that total is to go toward procuring the first two of four geosynchronous satellites in time for the proposed fall 2009 launch window. A satellite in geosynchronous orbit matches the Earth’s rotation speed.

MDA Programs

SBIRS is supposed to help cue the raft of anti-missile systems under development by the MDA. Major programs are the long-range Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the Airborne Laser (ABL), and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). The systems are in various stages of development and have different capabilities and missions, although some overlap.

Since its 2002 establishment, the MDA has overseen the deployment of two dozen total GMD interceptors in Alaska and California and 21 Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors to counter short- to intermediate-range missiles. Ten ships have been converted to fire the SM-3s. The first THAAD fire unit, designed to defend against short- to intermediate-range missiles as they descend toward their targets, is slated for fielding in 2009. THAAD scored three hits in three intercept trials last year, maintaining its perfect record since going through a redesign in the late 1990s.

Intended to destroy missiles during the first few minutes after their launch, the ABL is a modified Boeing 747 armed with a powerful chemical laser, and the KEI is a fast-accelerating interceptor. Both programs are at earlier stages in their development and face crucial tests in fiscal year 2009 that could determine their fate. The ABL is supposed to be tested against a target in flight for the first time that year, while the KEI is scheduled for its inaugural flight.

The MDA envisions that by 2013 the United States will have deployed 54 total GMD interceptors, 147 SM-3 interceptors, and four THAAD fire units with 96 total interceptors. Future procurement plans for ABL and KEI systems have yet to be made.

Congress in recent years has urged the MDA to focus attention and resources on the systems ready for more immediate deployment rather than programs that are more futuristic and technically riskier, such as the KEI. In the latest budget request, the agency apportions almost half its proposed spending to the more established programs: $2.3 billion for the GMD project, just more than $1 billion for Aegis, and $811 million for THAAD.

Still, the agency trimmed its THAAD request by $47 million from last year while bumping up the KEI request by $159 million, to $386 million. The deployment of the third and fourth THAAD fire units also were postponed a year each, until fiscal years 2013 and 2014.

Those actions seemingly contradict congressional wishes as well as those of Lieutenant General Kevin Campbell, the head of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command. Last April, Campbell testified to the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that moving ahead with THAAD deployments was “vitally important” while suggesting that the KEI and ABL programs were less urgent, describing them as a “hedge against future threats.” In another hearing that same month, Campbell also reported on a study by his command that recommended doubling proposed purchases of THAAD and Aegis interceptors. The MDA, which is charged with developing systems but not operating them in the field like the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, did not change the production plans for either system.

Meanwhile, the MDA ratcheted up its funding request for multiple kill vehicles, a more novel concept. The agency wants to develop smaller, generic kill vehicles, the component that maneuvers into a collision with an incoming threat, so a single interceptor can carry several at once to engage multiple targets. The latest budget request of $354 million for the program is approximately $83 million higher than that previously requested. But Congress last year cut nearly $63 million from the program to signal its displeasure with the MDA for unilaterally planning to mount multiple kill vehicles on a longer-range version of the SM-3 without consulting Japan, which is co-developing the modified interceptor.

Although Congress has repeatedly denied MDA requests for money to explore space-based anti-missile system options, the agency has resurrected that bid this year. It is seeking $10 million to start creating a space-based test bed. Projected costs for the test bed rise annually to $123 million by fiscal year 2013.

The agency, however, seems to be a little more sensitive to congressional complaints about the status of its testing and target programs. In a report on last year’s defense authorization bill, lawmakers expressed “disappointment” that the MDA “has failed to ensure an adequate testing program.” The MDA’s current request for testing and target activities is $79 million higher than last year’s request of $586 million.

The European Option

The MDA is seeking its biggest budget boost to deploy 10 strategic ground-based interceptors in Poland and an associated missile tracking radar in the Czech Republic to defend against what the Bush administration says is a growing Iranian missile threat. The agency more than doubled its request of $310 million last year to approximately $719 million in the Feb. 4 budget submission.

Last November, Congress denied $85 million to begin system construction this year because no hosting agreements had been reached with the Czech Republic and Poland. But Reuters Feb. 21 quoted John Rood, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, telling reporters in Budapest that “very significant progress” had been made in recent talks with the two potential host governments. Rood was visiting the Hungarian capital to meet with Russian officials to try and soften their opposition to the proposed system.

A few weeks earlier, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski visited Washington and said that a Polish-U.S. agreement had been reached in principle, but he cautioned, “[W]e are not at the end of the road…we are in the middle of the road.” Warsaw has made clear that it wants Washington to help bolster Polish military capabilities, particularly air defenses, as part of any hosting arrangement.

Russia’s hostility to the U.S. project is a key factor behind Polish demands for additional U.S. assistance and weapons systems. Moscow, which perceives the proposed system as directed against Russia, has threatened to target the potential interceptor and radar bases.

Washington has engaged in talks with Moscow to allay its concerns but to no avail. Speaking Feb. 8 to Russian legislators, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of being disingenuous. “It is with sorrow in my heart that I am forced to say that our partners have been using these discussions as information and diplomatic cover for carrying out their own plans,” Putin said. Russian officials warn that deployment of the systems will trigger a new arms race.

U.S. officials have been dismissive of the Russian fears and threats. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Feb. 1 argued, “There is no way that a few interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic can degrade the thousands of nuclear warheads that the Russians have, and there is no intent to do so.” Pending congressional approval, Rice and other administration officials insist the United States will go ahead with its plan once agreements are reached with the Czech and Polish governments.

The MDA budget request is prepared for that eventuality and contains $238 million for starting construction on the interceptor base, according to Rick Lehner, a spokesperson for the agency. Speaking Feb. 13 with Arms Control Today, Lehner also noted that the MDA plans to conduct the inaugural flight test of the interceptor model planned for the base in 2009, a year earlier than previously scheduled. The proposed interceptor is a modified version of the type fielded by the United States in Alaska and California.

But Do Missile Defenses Work?

After the United States used a modified SM-3 interceptor to destroy a crippled U.S. satellite on Feb. 20 (see page 50 ), reporters the next day quizzed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about whether that event proved missile defense can work. In addition to citing past successful tests of the various systems, Gates contended that the fact that lawmakers in recent years have approved billions of dollars to support missile defense “is testimony to the fact that I think the issue of whether it will work is behind us.”

An annual report released a month earlier by the Pentagon’s independent weapons-testing assessor, the Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, offered a less sanguine appraisal. The report described U.S. capabilities against shorter-range missiles as improving but rated capabilities against longer-range missiles as “very basic.”

Many of the report’s criticisms focused on the GMD system, which the testing office stated was “the least mature missile defense capability against its strategic threat set.” Although assessing that the system presents a “limited capability against a simple foreign threat,” the report stated that flight testing of the system “is not sufficient to provide a high level of statistical confidence in its limited capabilities.” The report also characterized past testing as “relatively unchallenging” and “representative of an unsophisticated threat.” The system has scored seven hits in 12 attempts against targets since 1999.

The MDA has announced plans to raise the degree of difficulty in its future GMD tests by reintroducing countermeasures, such as decoys, alongside mock warhead targets. (See ACT, November 2007. ) An attacker could employ countermeasures to try and confuse or circumvent anti-missile systems. Lehner said two GMD intercept tests are scheduled this year.

The testing office gave higher marks to the Aegis and THAAD systems. The recent report assessed Aegis as including a “good degree of operational realism in its flight test program” and concluded that THAAD “will provide a significant increase in capability against short- to intermediate-range threats.”

The MDA contends that it has answered affirmatively the basic question about whether missile defense can work. In its Feb. 5 budget overview, however, the agency acknowledges that “the technical challenges that remain today lie in predicting the location of the enemy missiles, differentiating the missiles from countermeasures, communicating this information rapidly and accurately to the defensive system, and destroying multiple enemy missiles launched within seconds and minutes of each other.”