Keeping a Pledge

By Thomas Duffy / November 3, 2010 at 2:47 PM

The House Republicans' policy agenda that was rolled out in September, called the "Pledge to America," states that the GOP will "fully fund missile defense" to protect the homeland and support U.S. allies. No specifics are given, but Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee were very upset when the Obama administration cut $1.2 billion from missile defense funding in the fiscal year 2010 defense budget.

As part of that move, the administration eliminated the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program and the Multiple Kill Vehicle program, reduced the scope of the Airborne Laser program (renaming it the Airborne Laser Testbed and shifting it from the Missile Defense Agency to the office of the director of defense research and engineering) and committed to fielding 30 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. The previous Bush administration wanted 44 interceptors.

Riding a wave of Tea Party anger over government spending, among other issues, the newly elected House GOP majority may have to explain to its base why missile defense should be given any more money if you consider the argument laid out by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. During a May 13, 2009 appearance before the House Armed Services Committee, Gates defended the administration's moves this way:

In terms of your larger point, I would say that the security of the American people and the efficacy of missile defense are not enhanced by continuing to put money into programs that, in terms of their operational concept, are fatally flawed or research programs that are essentially sinkholes for taxpayer dollars.

Gates walked the committee through each program and gave his reasons for why each should be cut. The KEI effort was, at the time of Gates' testimony, in its 14th year of development even though the program plan called for five years. Gates said KEI was "a program that wasn't going anywhere." In its justification material sent to Congress with the FY-10 budget, MDA laid out several technical problems affecting the KEI program. "Even if such technical problems could be solved without excessive cost and schedule implications, we have become concerned about the cost-effectiveness of the KEI interceptor, which is currently estimated at $75 million per unit," the agency said.

Gates said the Multiple Kill Vehicle was aimed at a stronger missile threat, such as from China or Russia, and not the threat posed by rogue states like Korea and Iran. MKV was "incompatible" with the policies of both the Obama and Bush administrations in that sense, Gates said.

The operational concept behind the ABL does not hold up, Gates pointed out. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, testifying with Gates, told the committee he felt the ABL "has been a flawed concept for years." Gates pointed out that if the target were Iran, the concept calls for ABL to "orbit almost entirely within the borders of Iran. This is probably a little problematic."

Eight days after Gates and Mullen spoke to the committee, MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly explained why 30 ground-based interceptors provided the protection needed against a possible North Korean missile attack. O'Reilly explained that there was never any analysis done to justify the 44-interceptor limit and the threat projections done in 2002 that supported the 44 number "were off by a factor of 10 to 20 in that regard."

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Inside Missile Defense obtained a May 2010 report, marked "for official use only," that contains the following threat assessment:

While both Iran and North Korea have demonstrated technologies that are directly applicable to the development of ICBMs, neither has yet to show any evidence of developing an ICBM-class warhead.