Numbers Game

By Thomas Duffy / June 16, 2009 at 5:00 AM

The House Armed Services Committee today held a lengthy, and at times entertaining, debate over how many interceptor missiles the United States should have to defend against ballistic missile attacks. The committee settled on 30 -- the number supported by the Obama administration -- during its mark-up of the fiscal year 2010 defense budget. The Bush administration was funding a plan to put 44 in the ground in Alaska and California (40 up north, four down south).

The back-and-forth between committee Democrats (who supported 30 interceptors) and Republicans (who wanted to restore the 44 interceptors) highlighted a rather curious fact -- neither number is backed up by any hard Pentagon analysis.

The Democrats offered up the support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright and Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, all of whom have testified to Congress that 30 ground-based interceptors are adequate to meet the threat posed by North Korea and Iran.

Republicans argued for restoring the plan for 44 interceptors because, well, 44 is more than 30. Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) even threw China and Russia onto the table, arguing that both countries have sizable ICBM arsenals -- and contending that if they ever launched a few toward the United States, 14 more interceptors would come in handy. In the early days of the Bush administration's push for a deployed national missile defense system, though, Pentagon officials consistently told Congress the system would have no capability against China's missile arsenal.

In a statement issued just moments after the committee approved an amendment by Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) to stay with the 30 interceptor plan, the committee's majority staff said in the next few years North Korea “could launch, at most, one or two long-range ballistic missiles at the United States at any one time, and Iran has not yet tested a missile capable of reaching the United States.” Nether of those situations are expected to change over the next five years, according to the statement. “The 30 ((ground-based midcourse defense)) interceptors deployed under the president's plan are more than enough to counter this threat," the statement reads.

So what about the numbers? The Missile Defense Agency tells us that the decision to put 44 interceptors in the ground “was made in the 2001-2002 time frame based upon analysis of the expected threat. During that time frame ((the)) decision was also made to deploy up to four GBIs at Vandenberg ((Air Force Base in California)) in addition to GBIs at Ft. Greely ((in Alaska)).”

Earlier this year the Missile Defense Executive Board made the recommendation to go to 30 interceptors, MDA tells us. That position was accepted by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, putting in motion the events that played out during the House committee's meeting this morning.