Monday, October 8, 2007

Senator Kyl Attempts to Sell Space-Based Missile Defense as Satellite Protection

Last week, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) attempted to amend the Senate Defense Appropriations bill to re-insert funding for the "space-based test bed" -- preliminary research into the development of three or more prototype weaponized satellites designed to intercept ballistic missiles launched from the ground. Kyl's case for funding the project was that it was a step towards the development of active defenses for American satellites against anti-satellite weapons, and that it was not necessarily a missile defense project. However, an examination of the budget request for the test bed casts serious doubt on Kyl's argument, indicating that the test bed is quite simply a missile defense program.

Kyl with President Bush at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2002

The space-based test bed is seen by critics as a dangerous step into a space arms race and a far-fetched, extraterrestrial extension of the already troubled National Missile Defense program. As such, funding for the program has been eliminated by all four budget committees (Armed Services and Appropriations Committees in both the House and Senate). Kyl attempted to re-insert funding for the program by amendment on the floor of the Senate. Jeffrey Lewis posted a transcript of the debate on the Senate floor between Kyl and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) over Kyl's attempt to fund the project.

The exchange illustrated the complex relationship between missile defense and satellite defense. In pushing for the funding of the "space-based test bed" of weaponized satellites, Kyl attempted to distance the pilot program from the increasingly unpopular national missile defense system, and re-categorize it as a satellite defense system. This maneuver was made somewhat difficult by the fact that Kyl was lobbying to re-insert the space based test bed into its original position -- in the budget for missile defense. As Senator Nelson observed, "the proposed space test bed in a missile defense program is a missile defense program, not a space asset protection program."

Kyl replied:
The space-based test bed is one of the places in which we could develop proof of concept that could be effective both for our satellites and, yes, also for an attack by a hostile missile because that is where this program started, it is in the missile defense budget...It is theoretically possible that a concept would be developed to protect against a hostile missile attack with some kind of a space-based program.
The space-based test bed is not just in the Missile Defense Agency's (MDA) budget because "that is where the program started," it is in their budget because it is a missile defense project. Moreover, it is more than "theoretically possible" that the space-based test bed would be used for missile defense. Senator Kyl's assertions aside, the best guide to the purpose of the space-based test bed (and the $10 million that Kyl and the MDA propose spending on it in FY2008) is the Missile Defense Agency's budget justification, available here (p. 19).

While Kyl attempts to distance the test bed from missile defense, the first item in the planned program for the space-based test bed in FY'08 is to "Initiate formal steps for potential integration [of the test bed] into the BMDS [Ballistic Missile Defense System] architecture." Which is to say, money spent on the space-based test bed is money spent in pursuit of space-based missile defense. Moreover, the budget justification doesn't say a single word about using the test bed as a way to develop technology to defend satellites, which flies in the face of Kyl's argument in support of the system.

Fortunately, Kyl's attempt to re-insert funding for the test bed failed: This congress does not want to fund space-based missile defense, and as Senator Nelson accurately argued, the test bed is a missile defense program, while satellite defense research is funded through other areas of the budget.

But while Congress' stand against space-based weapons is admirable, their control over covert weapons systems has its limits. Sam Black at the Center for Defense Information observed last year:

While the budget for this program [i.e. the space-based test bed] shrank, the annual budgets for classified MDA programs grew tremendously. If unclassified program budgets are shrinking while timetables remain stable, this could be a sign that the Space Test Bed is receiving funds from classified accounts, and so has even less accountability than it did previously.

Insofar as Black's speculation is accurate, it testifies to the limits of congressional power and the importance of electing a president in 2008 who is willing to pursue space security through international law, rather than extraterrestrial weapons.

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