Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Highlights of Third House Hearing on Missile Defense

Last Wednesday (April 30), the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs held a hearing entitled, “Questions for the Missile Defense Agency: Oversight of Missile Defense (Part 3)” (A summary of Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here, respectively). Wednesday’s hearing was the third in the Committee’s series on America’s missile defense program.

The witness list for the hearing was broken up into two panels. Panel 1 consisted of Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Lieutenant General Henry A. “Trey” Obering III while Panel 2 included Philip E. Coyle, III (Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director of Operational Test and Evaluation in the Department of Defense from 1994-2001), The Honorable Henry F. Cooper, Ph.D. (Chairman of the High Frontier organization), Mr. Joseph Cirincione (President of the Ploughshares Foundation). Their testimonies can be found here, here, here, and here, respectively.

This third hearing was particularly noteworthy since it gave the Subcommittee members a rare opportunity to raise important questions about missile defense in a public setting with MDA’s director. For the most part, the Democrats on the Subcommittee performed their oversight role well, aggressively questioning Obering on the technological feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and urgency of MDA’s programs and operations.

In what follows I want to summarize and then rebut three claims about missile defense made by General Obering during the hearing.

First, in its annual report on missile defense released in March of this year, the GAO determined that tests of the GMD element have not been undertaken in operationally realistic conditions. When asked about this finding by Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH), Obering responded that he did not “agree in total with” the GAO’s conclusions, insisting that missile defense assets have in fact been tested in “operationally realistic” conditions. Obering did, however, admit that “the one condition that we did not have on the target was complex countermeasures, [but]…you don’t have to have complex countermeasures to be operationally realistic… You will for the future, but you don’t necessarily have to do that for today.”

Second, in response to a question from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), Obering disputed Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates suggesting that taxpayers can expect to spend an additional $213 to $277 billion on missile defense between now and 2025 in addition to the over $120 billion that has already been spent to date. Said Obering: “They’re making assumptions about what we will continue, what we will not continue, that I don’t think are accurate.”

Third, Obering repeatedly argued that missile defense could strengthen deterrence by dissuading Iran and North Korea from further investing in ballistic missiles and/or using those weapons in a conflict.

On the issue of testing under operationally realistic conditions, Obering’s claims don’t add up. As Coyle noted in his opening testimony, MDA appears to want Congress “to believe that Iran (or North Korea) would be reckless enough to attack Europe, or the United States, with a single missile – with no decoys or countermeasures – and then sit back and wait for the consequences.” In reality, if Iran and North Korea were so reckless as to attack the United States or its allies, it would almost certainly do so with many missiles armed with decoys and countermeasures. What MDA usually fails to mention is that it could be decades away from conducting intercept tests against the type of decoys and countermeasures the intelligence community expects Iran and North Korea to soon be able to field.

On the issue of financial costs, it is more than a little hypocritical for Obering to be lecturing Congress about the future trajectory of missile defense. According to MDA, “there are currently no final or fixed architectures and set of requirements for the proposed BMDS.” Given that MDA has yet to flesh out any tangible operational criteria for success for the system, how can they claim with any degree of certainty that they know what the eventual costs will be?

Finally, on the issue of the impact of missile defense on deterrence, missile defense could, in theory, afford the U.S. greater latitude in achieving its goals vis a vis an adversary. Yet how much latitude is contingent on the effectiveness of our missile defenses, the odds that our adversaries would attack us with nuclear-armed ICBMs, the availability of other means to address enemy missile programs, and the impact of missile defense on great-power relations.

Given that (1) MDA is nowhere near the ability to field a missile defense system that can effectively deal with decoys and countermeasures, (2) Iran and North Korea are probably a decade (at the earliest) away from acquiring nuclear-armed ICBMs, (3) it would be easier for Iran and North Korea to attack us with WMD delivered via means other than an ICBM, (4) an over reliance on missile defense at the expense of diplomacy could encourage U.S. policymakers to take a more aggressive posture in crisis situations (thereby increasing the risks of instability and the probability of a nuclear attack on U.S. soil), and (5) U.S. missile defense plans have undermined U.S. strategic interests and international security by infuriating Russia and China, Obering is over exaggerating the utility of missile defense and obscuring its costs.

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