Lawmakers who control the purse strings for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) see the emergent multi-layered U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield proceeding well, meaning the legislators are likely to provide robust support for the agency.

It is seeking $9.43 billion for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009.

“This has been a good year for missile defense,” said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee.

Ballistic missile systems “could be operational if necessary,” he said, adding that it’s important BMD systems are tested and shown to work. He said he was “impressed with the success of the Aegis program,” with a weapon control system by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] and a Standard Missile-3 interceptor by Raytheon Co. [RTN].

These programs, he said, will be protecting the United States from missile attacks “for decades to come.”

Also driving Inouye and other senators to support MDA funding is the fact that BMD systems must be developed swiftly to counter a rapidly growing danger of enemy attacks.

The positive view was bipartisan.

“The threat continues to increase,” said Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, ranking Republican on the subcommittee. Therefore, he continued, “I believe the committee will continue to support” funding for BMD programs led by the MDA.

Inouye and other senators lavished praise on the MDA director, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. “Trey” Obering III, who will step down from the post later this year.

“I want to thank the committee for the tremendous support we have received,” Obering said.

He endorsed Stevens’s assessment of a rising chance of missile attacks against the United States, saying that North Korea and Iran have missile development programs that are “very troubling,” in addition to which those nations have nuclear programs.

Iran continues to produce nuclear materials that Western nations fear will be used to build nuclear weapons. Also, Iran has fired multiple missiles in a salvo test; launched a missile from a submerged submarine; and has said it is pressing to launch a satellite into space, which involves many of the same technologies as an intercontinental ballistic missile. Also, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel should be wiped from the map.

North Korea has detonated an atomic bomb in an underground test. Also, the insular regime has refused to comply fully with demands that it turn over records and hardware of its nuclear program. And North Korea is developing a long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile capable of striking the United States.

So the nation faces a growing threat, Obering indicated.

But thanks on the other hand to “a record of continued success” that includes 10 interceptor kills out of 10 tests recently, “we will be able to defend” the nation against missile attacks, Obering said.

He also noted that NATO endorsed the MDA plan to install a missile defense shield in Europe to protect it and the United States against any Iranian missile attack.

Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ranking Republican on the full committee, noted that there are critics complaining about BMD programs, saying that they cost too much, or may not work, or that they would spur an international missile race. (Please see separate story on critics in this issue.)

“There’s always going to be someone” who will be “a naysayer,” Cochran said, while adding that there is in contrast “very strong and compelling evidence” that missile defense can work.

Obering assured him that he is correct. “I’m confident in the capabilities of the systems we have deployed,” the general said.

Critics ignore many realities about missile defense, such as the fact that the United States is deploying a multi-layered shield, where each layer can aid the others in spotting, tracking and defeating incoming enemy missiles, Obering noted.

Further, it is true that U.S. BMD systems can handle simple countermeasures deployed by enemy missiles, contrary to what some critics claim, he said.

From X-band radar to space tracking and surveillance systems, the United States will have a competent defense against enemy threats, Obering said.”We can keep up with emerging threats,” he assured the senators.

On one point, Obering doesn’t take issue with critics: yes, he said, it’s true that missile defense systems are expensive. But, he added, if the missile shield can prevent just one U.S. city from being hit by an enemy missile tipped with a weapon of mass destruction, the entire missile defense funding effort will be worth it, and more.

Offensive missiles are spreading across the world, he said, adding that he would like to see a missile defense race in response.

If the United States can show clearly that it can destroy enemy missiles, that can dissuade nations not only from launching attacks with missiles, but also can deter those countries from investing in missiles to begin with, Obering said.

On other points:

  • Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said he is interested in the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) BMD system as a mobile asset. Obering said KEI can be a mobile mid-course BMD system, provided that KEI passes a test by shooting down a missile soon.
  • Army Lt. Gen. Kevin T. Campbell, commander of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said important technology is being developed for the advanced hypersonic weapon.
  • Obering said he is unsure how many Airborne Laser (ABL) planes would be required, but for a 24-hour capability on alert to destroy any enemy missiles, “you need two or three aircraft.” The ABL, Obering said, is highly cost efficient, because just one aircraft can shoot down multiple missiles. The Boeing Co. [BA] is the prime contractor, contributing the 747-400 heavily modified jumbo jet, while Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] contributes the high-powered laser and Lockheed contributes the beam control/fire control mechanism that aims the laser beam at an enemy missile.