War Stories

Watch What They Spend, Not What They Say

The Obama administration says missile defense isn’t as important as it used to be. Its budget says otherwise.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid out his $708.2 billion budget proposal this week, he also submitted a 48-page document called the “Ballistic Missile Defense Review.” Reading this review, you might think that Gates was slashing the missile-defense program. You’d be wrong.

Gates writes of “a new course for spending” that is responsive to “budgetary constraints.” He says he won’t deploy any system until it passes realistic tests. (In more than a decade of development, no BMD system has been subject to any realistic tests, and none has passed more than half of the rigged ones.) And he’s moving away from exotic technologies based on “unrealistic concepts of operation” and designed for threats that won’t exist for a long, long time, if ever. Gates says that the program will deal with threats as they evolve. But, he adds, this does not require us to push ahead with missile defenses “at the same accelerated rate” as we have “in recent years.”

There’s a mismatch, however, between Gates’ words and his actions. His proposed missile defense budget for fiscal year 2011 amounts to a staggering $10.4 billion. This is $2 billion less than George W. Bush requested (and received) for missile defense—his most cherished military program—in his last year as president. But it’s $700 million more than Gates himself received in FY 2010.

The program is getting more expensive and, in some respects, more exotic—not less.

First, let’s get straight on how much money this program is consuming, a more complicated matter than any other part of the defense budget. In his Feb. 2 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said he was requesting $9.9 billion for missile defense. But the day before, at the Pentagon’s press briefings on the budget, David Altwegg, the program manager for the Missile Defense Agency, put the figure at $8.4 billion.

What accounts for the difference? Three things.

First, the Missile Defense Agency controls most, but not all, of the money for missile defense. The Army controls the program for upgraded Patriot surface-to-air missiles; that amounts to about $1 billion. Various support items for these missiles, also in the Army budget, add up to another $400 million. A space-laser research program, once in the MDA budget but now in the Pentagon’s research and engineering office, takes up $100 million. (See the Defense Department’s budget books on these items.)

Those three items add up to $1.5 billion—the difference between the two statements by Altwegg and Gates.

Quite apart from this, the Air Force is requesting another $500 million for the space-based infrared system, or SBIRS. This is an element of the missile-defense system, even though, for reasons I’ve never understood, no administration has ever included it in the missile-defense budget.

So, Gates’ $9.9 billion, plus $500 million for SBIRS, equals $10.4 billion. This is not exactly a sign of heeding “budgetary constraints.”

Gates is terminating a few pieces of the program. One of them is the “Multiple Kill Vehicle,” designed to shoot down warheads and possible decoys as they arc across outer space in the middle of their flight paths. As the BMD Review states, this program is “not maturing at a reasonable rate.” (Translation: It has been failing tests and nobody thinks it’s going to work.) Similarly, the “Kinetic Energy Interceptor,” designed to shoot down enemy missiles as they’re launching into the sky, before they get out of the atmosphere, is “neither affordable nor proven,” “could not be integrated into existing weapons platforms or systems,” and had nearly doubled in cost.

It is worth noting that the Bush administration had described both of these components as critical to the entire missile-defense system. And in fact, they were critical. Under Bush’s plan (and Obama’s doesn’t differ on this point), a full-blown system—if one were ever really built and deployed—would entail a multi-staged, networked system, in which warning systems, tracking radars, firing mechanisms, and missiles (or lasers or whatever weapons are at hand) act in tandem, automatically, to shoot down enemy missiles at several points in their flight path.

The first stage of defense, called “boost-phase intercept,” would shoot at the enemy missiles soon after they blasted off. The second phase, “midcourse intercept,” would shoot at them as they arced through outer space. The final phase, “terminal-phase intercept,” would involve ground-based rockets slamming into the enemy’s warheads as they plunged to their targets on American soil.

In most analyses, official and otherwise, the first phase, the “boost-phase intercept,” is most crucial. In one sense, the enemy’s missile at this phase would be an easy target: Its rocket engines are still burning, and it’s moving slowly in a straight, vertical line. In another sense, though, it’s very hard: The boost phase lasts only a few minutes, so our interceptors would have to be within range of the missile site. This is one reason Gates killed the Airborne Laser System, a modified 747 jetliner fitted with lasers to shoot down ascending missiles.

However, to replace this item, Gates is restarting a research program in “directed energy”—that is, space-based lasers. This has long been dismissed as the stuff of science fiction. (Ronald Reagan put much stock in lasers when he introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983; it’s why some nicknamed the program “star wars.”) Certainly it’s inconsistent with Gates’ pledge to downplay exotic technologies.

True, he’s hardly emphasizing lasers. He’s presenting it as a research project—within the Defense Department’s directorate of research and engineering, not within the Missile Defense Agency—and giving it $100 million, chicken feed in the Pentagon’s vast coffers.

It may be that Gates is tossing the space-based-defense crowd a bone. But if boost-phase intercept is a vital part of a missile-defense system, if all the ideas for boost-phase intercept have washed out, and if the only thing going for it is a laser-research project that’s not likely to bear fruit for decades, if ever—then the whole vision of a multi-phased missile-defense system is in deep trouble. If that’s the case, and if there’s no way around it, the idea of spending $10.4 billion on a dream system begins to sound like a fool’s errand.

Gates is requesting more money for missiles and sensors—modified Patriots, SM3s, Aegis missiles, X-band radars, and so forth—designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles fired by Iran or North Korea against our allies in Europe. This isn’t a bad idea, on substantive and political grounds. Shorter-range missiles are easier to track and shoot down than intercontinental missiles. And after canceling Bush’s ill-considered missile-defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic, Gates needs to reassure the Europeans that we take their security seriously.

So a word to Congress: Keep this “regional defense” stuff (some of it anyway), and drain the rest. If canceling the latter is too daring, turn it into a low-level research project, which is all it’s worth, anyway. In other words, align Gates’ budget with Gates’ words. And save several billion dollars, too.