Secretary of Defense Robert Gates denied he killed the Airborne Laser (ABL) and Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptor rocket programs, when he unveiled his budget proposal for President Obama to review and consider.

The Gates proposal drew dismay from some lawmakers and others who favor a strong missile defense, especially since he unveiled his plan just a day after North Korea launched a long-range missile that — while not functioning perfectly — still arced over Japan before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

In the missile defense portion of his overall suggested Department of Defense budget plan for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010, Gates said the Pentagon shouldn’t buy any more ABL aircraft, keeping just the existing one prototype plane for research purposes. And he would nix any further purchases of GMD orbital vehicle interceptors for the missile defense installations in Alaska and California. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, April 6, 2009.)

The ABL would demolish enemy missiles in their most vulnerable phase of ballistic flight, just after launch as they ascend. The GMD would strike at enemy weapons in their long midcourse of flight.

Asked about those moves as he visited Fort Rucker, Ala., Gates argued that since he leaves money in the ABL program for research and development, then the ABL program wasn’t killed.

“I’ve kept alive the airborne laser,” Gates argued. “It’s clear that that program doesn’t make any sense to go to a full procurement, but we are keeping alive the first 747 [jumbo jet plane] research vehicle and we will continue to put money into that program because we think high energy or directed energy has some real potential for that.”

His decision against buying any more ABL planes comes just as the one existing ABL 747 is poised to shoot down a target missile for the first time, in a test set for this year.

However, having turned thumbs-down on buying any more of the giant planes, it is unclear how the ABL program can move forward to an eventual operational status.

As far as buying no more GMD orbital vehicle interceptors, Gates was asked whether that means he has killed the interceptor program.

“I don’t think I took an action on that,” he said.

The Boeing Co. [BA] leads both the ABL and GMD programs.

He also stressed that money that may not be there for further procurements in the ABL and GMD programs is offset by increased funding for the sea-based Aegis weapon control system-Standard Missile-3 interceptor system, and for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] leads both the Aegis weapon system program and THAAD.

“My view is that we kept in place and strengthened programs having to do with each aspect of missile defense,” Gates said. “Terminal defense, we’ve added money for both THAAD and SM-3, Standard Missile 3, a significant amount of money to maximize production there. For mid-course, we will sustain the [existing] 30 interceptors in Alaska and California and, as I said, robustly fund continuing R&D so that those capabilities can continue to improve. And we have a number of programs, some of them classified, that deal with the boost phase.”

To be sure, Gates and Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and others have said that killing enemy missiles in their boost phase is optimal, because the U.S. missile defense system can take out the enemy weapon while it is emitting an easily tracked hot rocket exhaust, before that enemy missile can spew out multiple warheads or confusing decoys or chaff.

Further, if U.S. forces attempt to hit the enemy missile early in its trajectory, if they should fail there, that still leaves an opportunity for the GMD system to hit enemy missiles in their midcourse of flight, and if that fails, then THAAD might blast apart the missiles in their final descent toward an American city.

More broadly, Gates objected to complaints about his proposal to cut $1.4 billion overall from various missile defense programs, out of a total roughly $10 billion for all missile defense efforts. While some analysts have pointed to significant cuts in programs such as ABL and GMD, Gates said one should focus instead on “robustly” funded systems that attack enemy missiles in their midcourse or terminal phases of flight, defending the United States, its forces and allies against short- and medium-range enemy weapons. GMD is the system designed to take down long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“For those who think we’ve slashed missile defense and so on, I think we have kept robustly funded each of the three elements of missile defense that makes sense,” he said.

True, he acknowledged, “I would say that we have shifted emphasis perhaps somewhat in keeping the ground-based interceptor program where it is with additional funds for research and development, but we have put substantial funds into the terminal phase, into THAAD and SM-3, in no small part because they provide significant additional protection for our troops in the theater and that are deployed, the same thing with the six [Navy] destroyers that we will convert to having an Aegis missile defense capability.”

Gates also acknowledged the timing issue of his announcement, coming just a day after the North Korean missile launch. He flatly rejected the notion that he doesn’t appreciate the need for missile defense in the face of growing nuclear and missile proliferation problems.

“Anybody who thinks that we’re not taking missile defense seriously, that we do not take seriously the North Korean launch and what North Korean capabilities are developing, I think has not looked carefully enough at the” proposed defense budget that Gates submitted to Obama, the Pentagon leader said.

Gates: Conventional Capabilities Needed

However, in a separate forum at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., Gates also conceded that the American military still requires the ability to fight conventional wars.

His comments came during a series of speeches he is giving at U.S. military schools to defend his proposed fiscal 2010 budget proposal to Obama.

Pentagon leaders must focus on procuring systems required for conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, rather than on solely countering threats in other types of conflicts. That is why canceling the Airborne Laser missile defense system was the right move, he said.

He also said he was justified in proposing to kill such Boeing programs as the combat search and rescue helicopter, the vehicles that would be developed and purchased for the Army Future Combat System, and other programs, he said.

While cutting those programs, he also proposes increased financial support for the sea-based Aegis weapon control system and Standard Missile interceptor, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system, and the Navy Littoral Combat Ship, programs led in part or in whole by Lockheed.

Gates also defended his move to cap the number of cutting-edge DDG 1000 Zumwalt Class destroyers at just three, pointing to their cost.

He noted that at one time the Navy proposed buying 32 of the stealth destroyers that can accommodate weapons of the future such as electric rail guns. Now, the Navy will buy just three of them. In other words, there was a 100 percent cost increase from earlier estimates, but the earlier plan would have purchased more than 1000 percent more ships.

It is unclear why a doubling of the price of the ship wouldn’t lead to a commensurate halving of the number of vessels bought, to 16, rather than to just three. General Dynamics Corp. [GD] and Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] would have shared building the ships in an earlier plan, but now General Dynamics Bath Iron Works would build all three, under the Gates plan. Raytheon Co. [RTN] makes the electronics.

Instead of buying more Zumwalts beyond those three, Gates would return to buying several more of the 1980s-design DDG 51 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers. General Dynamics and Northrop can share building these ships, which carry Lockheed electronics.