War Stories

Star Wars Spending Spree

Billions for Missile Defense, peanuts for anti-terrorism.

With all the concern about dirty bombs, bioterrorism, and suicide bombers smashing airplanes into power plants, the public has pretty much forgotten about the Pentagon’s ballistic-missile-defense program. (Wasn’t that some nutty dream of Ronald Reagan’s?) So, it may come as a shock to learn that President Bush will spend $7.4 billion on R&D for missile defenses next year. That’s twice the sum that Reagan spent on “star wars” in his final year of office—and for a system that remains sketchily defined and technologically dubious, against an unlikely threat that lies years, if not decades, off. Meanwhile, to defend against “weapons of mass destruction” that we all fear might blow up on American streets next week, the administration is spending—well, not quite zip, but far, far less than would be needed for a minimally serious effort, on technology that exists right now.

What’s more, Congress has approved this $7.4 billion, for what is now simply called the Missile Defense Agency, without knowing where the money is going. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has been an avid MD supporter from way back, restructured the program into five budget categories, responding to the program’s broad missions. These are, along with the amount appropriated in the Fiscal Year 2003 budget:

  • Boost Defense Segment (space-based weapons to destroy enemy missiles just after they’ve been launched, or “boosted”), $800 million;

  • Midcourse Defense Segment (weapons based on the ground, ships, and airplanes to attack enemy missiles in the arc of their trajectory), $3.2 billion;

  • Terminal Defense Segment (ground- and ship-based weapons to shoot down enemy warheads as they plunge to their targets), $1.1 billion;

  • Sensors Segment (the radar and other systems that warn of, and track, a missile attack), $400 million;

  • Ballistic Missile Defense System Segment (the testing and communications networks that tie the other segments into a system), $1.1 billion.

  • (The remaining $800 million is for Army surface-to-air missiles, most notably an upgraded version of the Patriot, that the Pentagon hopes to use in the system.)

However, beyond some vague sub-categorizations, the Pentagon does not break these dollar figures down in any detail—not even in the “ R-2 Budget Justification Book” that it provides to the congressional armed services committees. One congressional staff member told me, “The administration has done a masterful job of not providing real detail, not explaining what the money is for. We say, ’$3.2 billion for midcourse defense—what does this mean? How much for developing this widget? How much for testing that?’ They don’t know, or they don’t tell us.”

Instead, for Missile Defense, the Pentagon has created a “National Team” concept. The team consists of MDA officials and the MD contractors (mainly Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and TRW). The idea is: Congress gives us a chunk of money; we’ll figure out how to spend it once we have a better idea what we’re doing. It would be as if the Navy presented a budget item called “Defense of Indian Ocean—$35 billion.” A footnote might mention that the task involves aircraft, carriers, cruisers, frigates, missiles, radar, pilots, and sailors, but that the precise details—how many of these things, at what price per item—are still to be worked out. This is not the way the program was managed under Reagan, Bush I, or Clinton. Nor is it the way any other military program is managed, even now.

A little scrutiny of the program would suggest that, despite the accelerated spending, things are not going very well. The Pentagon has boasted of tests in which an interceptor missile has knocked down a mock warhead (“a bullet hitting a bullet”). For example, on July 14, 2001, one of the first of these bull’s-eyes, a 55-foot-long “kill vehicle,” fired from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, soared to 140 miles above the Earth, homed in on a mock warhead that had been launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in  California, and slammed into it at 15,000 mph, smashing it to smithereens.

However, in that test, by the MDA’s admission, the mock warhead had been fitted with a beacon that transmitted a radio signal, making the target much “brighter” for the radar-guided kill-vehicle. The MDA defended this practice, noting that the test was not a simulation but rather a demonstration of principle. Such demonstrations are common in early-stage testing programs. But that’s the point. After 18 years and $65 billion, this is still an early-stage program. And nobody knows when it will reach its late stage. The Justification Book runs budget estimates for Missile Defense, as it does for all other Department of Defense programs, out to Fiscal Year 2007. The final column is labeled “Cost to Completion”—in other words, how much more needs to be spent, after 2007, to complete the program. Usually there are numbers under that heading. For each segment of the Missile Defense program, the last column reads “CONT”—short for “continuing.” Nobody knows when the program will be completed, or how much completion will cost. And this document is just talking about research, development, and testing. There’s no pretense of making estimates for procurement or deployment.

Ever since Sept. 11, few in Congress have felt like scrutinizing a program billed as the ultimate in homeland security—especially since the president has deemed it his No. 1 defense priority. But what makes the monumental vagueness of the administration’s Missile Defense budget especially glaring is the contrast with comparable programs in the civil, domestic branches of Homeland Defense—programs designed to detect, track, and intercept chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons brought into this country, or transported to our cities, by car, truck, train, plane, or boat (all easier and cheaper means than launching them on the tips of ballistic missiles).

Such programs do exist, but their funding is miserly. The Department of Energy has a division called the Nuclear Emergency Support Team, which is equipped with sensors—some on vans, a few on helicopters, most handheld—that can detect radiological emissions. But the personnel who staff this team are not permanent; they are on revolving, part-time loan from the DOE’s national weapons labs. Before 9/11, these scientists participated in annual exercises. Now they are stretched beyond their limits.

Several of these labs—Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia, and Brookhaven—have developed prototypes of more sophisticated sensors. One of them was deployed in Salt Lake City during the Olympic Games to sniff out biological agents in the atmosphere. A few radiological monitors have been set up, randomly and briefly, at key bridges and facilities in other cities, including New York. But no agency has allocated money to evaluate or coordinate these efforts, much less purchase the sensors in any quantity. The entire budget for radiological detection in the region from New York to Boston totals $400,000—barely enough to do a study of the requirements for a system (which, by the way, nobody has commissioned).

A few specialists, who ask not to be identified, suggest some relatively cheap ideas. For $9 million, 100 officials in each of the 30 largest cities could be investigated for security clearances so they could sit down with DOE scientists and work out the most effective local measures. For $20 million per city, in many cases much less, emergency-management officials and scientists could set up a formal testing program. For $100 million, top weapons-lab scientists—who are currently competing for crumbs—could be brought together for a two-year project to look at existing projects in high-energy physics (say, those involving detection and measurement of very faint chemical and radiological signals) and figure out how to apply the technology to practical, deployable sensors. Many lab scientists are eager to do this work, but nobody’s given them the money, much less a plan and certainly not a free pass.