Last Wednesday the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) released its report on the FY 2010 Defense Budget request. In keeping with CSBA’s previous reports on the defense budget, this year’s version, authored by Todd Harrison, is another excellent contribution.
However, I’d like to quibble with the report’s assessment of the implications of the funding request for missile defense. The FY 2010 request cut the overall missile defense budget by 16% in real terms (i.e. in FY 2010 dollars) relative to the previous year. According to Harrison:
The net effect of these changes is to shift the focus from national missile defense (NMD) systems, designed to protect the United States from strategic ballistic missile attack, to theater missile defense (TMD) systems, intended to protect forward-deployed US forces against shorter-range ballistic missiles.
Some of the advantages of this approach are that it is more affordable in both the near term and long term, and it invests money in systems that are proven effective. The programs that the budget proposes to cut or terminate, with the exception of GMD, are still in development and have significant technical hurdles that have yet to be overcome. On the other hand, this approach does not put the nation on a path to providing the same level of national missile defense protection in the future. In particular, reducing the number of operational Ground Based Interceptors to thirty with no replacement or replenishment program planned could result in too few missiles to provide a basic level of protection, especially as these missiles are depleted over time from regular test launches.
I realize that Harrison is approaching this issue from the perspective of a budgetary analyst and not a policy analyst, but there are a few problems with his bottom line.
Pointing to a shift in focus from NMD systems to TMD systems is in some ways misleading. Total funding for NMD programs still greatly exceeds that of TMD programs.
That said, there is good reason the FY 2010 request begins to address this imbalance (by increasing funding for TMD systems such as Aegis and THAAD and decreasing funding for NMD systems such as GMD, MKV, and KEI.). Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the Director of the Missile Defense Agency, noted in a recent interview that 99% of the ballistic missile threat today is from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.
GMD, like the other strategic defense systems the budget proposes to cut or terminate, has not been proven effective. GMD’s test history has been mixed to say the least, even under the highly scripted conditions under which the system has been tested. According to the office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense on testing of Department of Defense weapon systems,
[national missile defense] flight testing to date will not support a high level of confidence in its limited capabilities…additional test data under realistic test conditions is necessary to validate models and simulations and to increase confidence in the ability of these models and simulations to accurately predict system capability.
And I haven’t even mentioned the GMD-variant slated for deployment in Eastern Europe. This interceptor has not even been built, much less tested.
Capping the number of operational interceptors in Alaska at 30 is not likely to make the U.S. more vulnerable. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May that
the program, as you suggest, was to grow from the 30 interceptors that we have now, to 44. And the advice that I got is, first of all, that system really is only capable against North Korea, and that 30 interceptors at the level of capability that 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 in this respect. And that budget also includes robust funding for continued development and improvement of those ground-based interceptors.
Given these realities, the FY 2010 budget request is likely to make us less, not more, vulnerable.