European Missile Defense Still Alive, Perhaps With Russia As Partner: Gates

Lawmakers: Missile Defense Cuts Unwise; Huge Weapons Cuts Challenged In Congress, But Gates Presses For Fiscal 2010 Budget

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates encountered robust criticism of his plans to slash or eliminate some missile defense programs at a time of rising missile threats, but Gates was unbending in his insistence that his proposals are sound.

And some Democrats in key positions on both sides of Capitol Hill backed his planned cuts, raising doubts whether backers of the multilayered U.S. missile defense system will be able to block those cuts when Congress in the fall passes the Department of Defense budget bills for the impending fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010.

One area where Gates plans cuts would drop the number of interceptors for the National Missile Defense system, or Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD) to only 30, instead of the planned 44.

Under questioning by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), Gates conceded that GMD works to defeat enemy missiles from rogue states such as North Korea. He also said his proposed cut isn’t meant to block buying 44 interceptors forever, but rather would limit the buy to 30 only for the time being.

“I believe that this [GMD] capability is very important to the security of the United States,” Gates said. “I am comforted that we have [a GMD system] that we think works now” to kill incoming enemy missiles and protect the nation, “that we have some confidence it can handle the North Korean threat right now.”

North Korea will continue to advance its missile technology and capabilities, Gates predicted, meaning that the United States must continue to invest in upgrading the GMD system.

“Those threats will continue to become more sophisticated, and I think we need to continue to improve our capability,” Gates said, responding to questions from Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska). Part of the GMD system is located in Alaska.

Gates added that he wants both continued testing and ongoing development of the GMD interceptors, because “as North Korea, for example, becomes more sophisticated in their capabilities, we need to be more sophisticated in our defense. And so the [capability] of those ground-based interceptors is going to have to improve over time.

“So I see this … not as a static process, where we have a finite testing period, and then stop and just have the status quo for an extended period of time, but rather a dynamic process where we are continually updating and improving the capabilities of those ground-based interceptors.

“And, you know, the decision not to go to 44 interceptors at this point does not mean we’ll never go to 44 interceptors, or at least more than 30. It’s just that over the period of the next few years, we don’t see the need to go [buy] the additional interceptors, given the pace at which North Korea is developing its program. But I don’t think anybody is kind of drawing a line at 30 [interceptors], and saying no more ever, any more than saying we’re going to have a static program after a few years of additional testing.”

He said that meanwhile, “30 interceptors at the level of capability North Korea has now and is likely to have for some years to come, 30 interceptors in fact provide a strong defense against North Korea.”

There also are funds for continued development and improvement of the ground-based interceptors.

Gates was accompanied in his appearance before the SASC by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by Robert F. Hale, the Pentagon comptroller.

The trio also testified before House lawmakers, where Gates said the European Missile Defense (EMD) program that he gave a mere $51 million for fiscal 2010 isn’t really dead.

The EMD interceptor is a variant of the GMD rocket. The Boeing Co. [BA] leads both systems.

Airborne Laser Criticized

But Gates was firm in asserting that the Airborne Laser (ABL) and Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) systems should be halted: he would buy no more ABL aircraft beyond the lone 747-400F now serving as a prototype test bed plane, and would drop the KEI program entirely. Boeing also makes the ABL, while the KEI program is led by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC].

Some lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill faulted Gates, noting that ABL and KEI are the two systems that would kill enemy missiles in their boost phase, shortly after launch. That is when an enemy missile is slowest, most vulnerable and most easily spotted by a U.S. missile defense system (the enemy missile still is emitting a hot exhaust plume), before the enemy weapon can emit multiple warheads or confusing decoys or chaff.

A boost-phase missile defense system also attempts to hit the enemy missile early in its trajectory so that if the attempted hit is unsuccessful, other systems can obliterate the enemy missile in its midcourse or terminal (final diving-down) phases of flight.

“The one area that is the hardest is boost phase,” he said. “And it is the one where we have had the most difficulty over the last 25 years in trying to get at this problem.”

As far as ABL, Gates said he is continuing research and development with the one existing prototype aircraft.

But costs mean the ABL shouldn’t be procured and fielded. “The problem with the operational concept of the Airborne Laser … was that it would have required buying a fleet of about 20 747s,” he said. He didn’t place a price tag on that, but unofficial estimates are that the planes, fully equipped with both laser systems and weapon control-beam control systems, would exceed $1 billion per plane.

“And the other difficulty is that they have to orbit close enough to the launch site so that if it were Iran, the orbit would be almost entirely within the borders of Iran, and if it were against North Korea, it would be … inside the borders of North Korea and China, and I just think operationally, that’s not going to happen,” Gates told the senators.

It is unclear what Gates meant when he said that the ABL would have to fly inside the borders of North Korea and China to be able to kill North Korean missiles in their boost phase, shortly after launch.

The Musudan-ri launch pad is about 4,000 feet, or 1,200 meters (not kilometers), from the sea, according to a Eye satellite map. And the ABL has a laser range that, while the exact distance is classified, is in the hundreds of kilometers, the Missile Defense Agency said in response to a question from Space & Missile Defense Report.

In a recent test of its Taepo Dong-2 long-range missile, North Korea fired it in a trajectory over Japan, so that the missile soon was over the sea after launching from Musudan-ri in northeastern North Korea. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, April 6, 2009.) On the other hand, if the Taepo Dong-2 were aiming to strike the United States, it would go north, heading over Russia, according to Peter Huessy, of the National Defense University Foundation. Either way, a missile launched from Musudan-ri would be within hundreds of meters of the sea.

As far as dropping the Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV) that provides multiple independent vehicles that can slam into an enemy missile or warhead and destroy it, or to hit multiple incoming objects such as a warhead and decoys.

Gates alluded to the fact that rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea don’t have multiple warhead capabilities yet, and the mission for the U.S. missile defense operation is to develop defenses against threats of rogue nations, not against sophisticated Chinese or Russian missiles and warheads. He predicted Iran and North Korea won’t have such missile and warhead technologies for 10 to 15 years.

Further, he said, the MKV has had schedule, cost and technology issues. Also, Gates noted that the MKV was “curtailed severely” in the Bush administration, so that now in the Obama administration, “we basically just took it off life support.” He said the MKV decision came from the Missile Defense Agency, and was not part of the Gates sweeping budget cuts plan.

As he has previously, Gates also alluded to other boost phase missile defense programs that he said are classified, so he can’t describe them.

He denied that he is weak on missile defense, saying that “I am a strong defender and proponent of missile defense, but I want to spend the dollars on missile defense — both on R&D and operationally — where they will do us the most good.”

Gates responded to questioning from Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, until recently the ranking Republican on the SASC strategic forces subcommittee. Alabama is home to the Redstone Arsenal and a major rocket-missile complex in Huntsville. Apparently, Gates in his lengthy responses didn’t convince Sessions of the wisdom of missile defense cuts.

“I am worried about the numbers,” Sessions said. He termed it “a big cut, overall,” whacking about $1.2 billion out of a roughly $9 billion yearly program, dropping it to $7.8 billion overall for a panoply of layered missile defense systems.

“You’re having some very significant cuts” in some missile defense programs, Sessions said, “and I’m not sure all of that is so helpful.”

But the hearing ended with comments from SASC Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who praised Gates for proposing to cut deeply or kill outright many major defense acquisition programs.

“We commend … your efforts,” Levin said, adding that for Congress to agree to those deep cuts will “take some courageous decisions on our part,” adding that “I think we’re up to it.”

Industry Yes, Defense No

Gates and Mullen also appeared before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), where they also encountered sharp questioning and concern by HASC members.

For example, Rep. John McHugh of New York, the ranking HASC Republican, expressed bafflement that there are trillions of dollars being dumped upon private industries such as banks, brokerages, mortgage lenders and insurance firms, but defense is getting a bare cupboard.

“I think we can do better,” McHugh told Gates and Mullen. Just for health care reform alone, there is a $600 billion “placeholder,” he observed.

It is difficult to understand why there are deep cuts and a time of privation for the military, yet simultaneously “largesse for everything else,” McHugh said.

Gates responded that his fiscal 2010 plan is “a reform budget,” one with fiscal constraints. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect the defense budget to continue rising indefinitely, he said.

Therefore, he added, he decided on “ending programs that go too far outside the line.”

Mullen told the lawmakers that he endorses the budget that Gates wrote and Obama submitted to Congress. The cuts won’t make the United States an inferior military power, Mullen continued, adding that “we are the most capable and combat ready” force.

Those views drew some sympathy from HASC Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who cited the “need for acquisition reform,” while also noting that the strategic long-range examination of future Department of Defense needs, the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, was not done before Gates wrote the budget with the cuts.

But the secretary of defense cited a lag between prior QDRs and their implementation, adding that his budget decisions had the advantage of the National Defense Strategy review last fall, as well as being informed by a great deal of analysis, and the budget-writing process itself.

Further, Gates argued that there can be too much mulling, too many reports.

What is key here, he said, is “not a lack of analysis but a lack of will to make tough decisions.”

McHugh, however, was troubled that “we had no clarity or visibility into that analysis” and the deep budget cuts that emanated from it. The ranking member challenged Gates to “assuage my concern” that the ongoing QDR will “be noting more than a” ratification of fiscal 2010 budget cut decisions already made.

Gates said he didn’t force military officials to say nothing about the budget writing process as it unfolded in some attempt to conceal that work from Congress. He also said those whom he compelled to sign confidentiality agreements were now free to discuss the budget.

European Program Not Dead

Gates also told House lawmakers that the European Missile Defense (EMD) program isn’t really dead, even though his plan would give it almost no funding in fiscal 2010.

Despite that move, he and others at the Pentagon still have “very active interest” in the EMD program, Gates said. The EMD is required to “deal with the longer-range Iranian missiles” that might be aimed at Europe or the United States, Gates noted. He said it is absolutely clear that Iran has a robust missile development program.

He also noted that his budget plan provides funding for upgrading six Navy ships to the Aegis ballistic missile defense capability, and provides increases in other areas.

The secretary said he acted now, in writing the 2010 budget, to begin reshaping defense priorities and programs. “I didn’t want to wait until later,” Gates said. If he put off the attempted cuts, it could be 2012 before the budget fight was joined, he said.

Rep. Michael R. Turner, ranking Republican on the HASC strategic forces subcommittee that oversees missile defense programs, also expressed concerns.

By cutting programs with futuristic technologies, policymakers are harming the ability to gain future technological innovations, Turner argued.

House Democrats have argued for supporting already-developed missile defense programs such as the Aegis weapon control system and companion Standard Missile interceptors, while turning away from programs still in development such as the ABL and KEI.

But Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), a member of the strategic forces subcommittee, voiced concern at the cuts in missile defense.

How, he asked, can the United States afford to cut missile defense programs in the face of rising missile threats across the globe? And, he asked, after deciding not to buy Airborne Laser planes and killing the KEI program, how is the United States to gain the capability to take down enemy missiles in their vulnerable boost phase?

But Gates responded that good programs are in place to counter enemy missiles in their midcourse and terminal phases of flight. “Boost phase is the toughest of all,” he said, repeating his assertion that the ABL planes would have to patrol while over enemy territory.

As for KEI, Gates dismissed it, saying that “this was a program that wasn’t going anywhere.” Both ABL and KEI had been set for tests, shooting down target missiles for the first time. But Gates said “a couple” of earlier KEI tests “did not go well.”

Another lawmaker with strong objections to the missile defense cuts was Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), co-chairman and a founder of the congressional Missile Defense Caucus.

Surveying the missile defense funding cuts, Franks said that “I think that is incredibly in the wrong direction.”

He added that U.S. missile defense systems that are effective against long-range and sophisticated enemy missiles are getting short shrift in the Gates budget plan.

Franks, too, asked why it is the Obama administration can find trillions of dollars for many programs and industries, but strangles defense financially.

Why, Franks asked, have war colleges conducting war games said that the United States requires more long-range interceptors, but Gates is cutting them from 44 to 30? Is it because the administration thinks that the missile threat facing the nation has decreased, or is it because the administration is willing to accept greater risk of missile attack? Franks asked.

Gates said, as he said before the Senate panel, that the GMD system is able to defend against North Korean missiles.

He also said that money shouldn’t be spent on missile programs that haven’t yet been developed into operational systems effective against enemy missiles, terming programs cut or canceled “a sinkhole.”

Problems confronting U.S. missile defense systems that would hit enemy missiles in their boost phase “are enormous,” Mullen said. The fiscal 2010 budget plan would protect “the security of the American people,” he added.

But Franks was unconvinced. Surveying the levels of funding for missile defense programs in the current fiscal 2009, and then seeing the giant cuts proposed for fiscal 2010, Franks asked how the threat level could have changed so much in a single year that the cuts would be warranted.