Monday, October 15, 2007

Philip Coyle on Proposed Missile Defense Cuts

A little bit delayed but member of the Center's National Advisory Board and senior adviser at CDI, Philip Coyle, recently put out a terrific piece in Defense News (password required) on the proposed cuts to the missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and the Airborne Laser program.

Missile Defense Folly: Cuts to Proposed U.S. Site in Europe, ABL, Well Aimed
By Philip Coyle
Defense News
October 1, 2007

U.S. lawmakers have cut the weakest portions of the president’s $10 billion-plus missile defense spending request for 2008: funding for the proposed U.S. missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and possibly part of the budget of the futuristic airborne laser (ABL).

Several more steps remain before Congress completes the missile defense budget for the coming fiscal year. However, considering the harm the proposal is doing to U.S. relations with Europe and Russia, and the unproven state of the technology, the cuts taken so far are well justified.

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) requested $310 million in 2008 for a missile defense site in Eastern Europe, supposedly to defend Europe and the United States from Iranian missiles. However, Czech citizens and the Russian government strongly oppose a Czech Republic site. While Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed several practical alternatives, President Bush is pressing ahead with the European site, eager to pour concrete before his term is up.

Reacting to the proposed U.S. missile defense sites so close to Russian borders, Putin announced the development of new ICBMs, warned that its nuclear weapons might have to be aimed at Europe and threatened to pull out of the treaty restricting deployments of conventional forces in Europe if Bush does not reconsider. These moves could potentially reignite the Cold War — or worse.

More to the point, the missile defense system being proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic has no demonstrated capability to defend Europe, let alone the United States, under realistic operational conditions. This is because the ground-based missile defense system, after which the planned European interceptor configuration would be modeled, has failed half the time in flight intercept tests, even though those tests have been scripted to improve the chances for success.

The MDA says it believes its European system would provide a rudimentary capability against an “unsophisticated threat,” meaning one or maybe two missiles fired from Iran with no decoys or countermeasures. Does the Pentagon really believe that Iran would attack Europe or the United States with only one missile and then sit back and wait for the consequences?

Cut the ABL, Too

Another program being debated by Congress, the ABL, is prompting different responses from Congress. The House and Senate Armed Services committees recommended serious cuts to the program, while appropriators in the House suggested a smaller drop in ABL’s funding and Senate appropriators recommended funding it in full.

The primary cause of the debate is the enormous technological hurdles that the program faces. To achieve enough power to damage an enemy missile, six massive laser systems, each the size of a Chevy Suburban sport utility vehicle set on end, are to be carried aboard a jumbo 747 cargo aircraft. The beams from these six lasers are to be combined and aimed at an enemy missile through a turret in the nose of the aircraft.

Understandably, directing a high-powered laser beam through the atmosphere at a target is very challenging. The atmosphere itself interferes with and weakens the beam, and if the target is rotating, as missiles do, or is too reflective, the laser could bounce off without doing any damage.

Moreover, to keep one 747 in the air within range of an enemy missile launch site 24/7, the Air Force would need multiple ABL aircraft, all carrying big lasers. Those aircraft would need to fly close to enemy territory, where they would be vulnerable targets themselves. And if the enemy can launch more than one missile, the chemicals that power the lasers carried on board those 747s would quickly be exhausted.

Even if the ABL worked, which it doesn’t, it would be ineffective in battle. A recent Congressional Research Service report pointed out that the ABL “would likely not have chemical replenishment capabilities, which would necessitate return flights to the United States if the laser is used.”

Thus, the CRS says, the “enemy could wait until an orbiting ABL is being refueled, or is absent before initiating a missile attack.”

The Pentagon plans to purchase seven ABL aircraft, though no production would take place until the second ABL is tested. Maintaining a full ABL orbit likely would require five aircraft. The MDA claims one ABL orbit can defend against all launch points in North Korea, but it admits larger countries, such as Iran, would require more than one orbit and many more costly ABL aircraft.

MDA estimates it will spend a total of $5.1 billion on the first ABL aircraft through 2009. However, a year ago the Pentagon decided not to purchase enough aircraft to cover even a single enemy missile launch site.

Congress should not throw good money after bad. The truth is that lawmakers could have made much deeper cuts in missile defense; saved the taxpayers money; or spent it on higher-priority needs, such as the near-term threats that U.S. soldiers and Marines face in Iraq every day from improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombs. By cutting funds for the missile defense programs, Congress is telling the president that he needs to sort out his priorities.

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