By Jordan Myers –
Congress is taking the first step to increase oversight of the much-debated missile defense programs via new spending regulations in the proposed defense appropriations bill. The Senate Armed Forces Committee inserted language requiring the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to report baselines for individual projects.
The proposed language would require the MDA to report back to Congress on costs of specific programs. Agency spokesman Richard Lehner stated that the MDA has reported baselines to Congress since 2005, but those reports lumped spending under one category, the Ballistic Missile Defense System, instead of breaking it down into smaller programs. The new proposal would allow Congress to know the costs of particular missile systems as well as their value to the military.
Descendent of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, the Missile Defense Agency is responsible for the research, development, and testing of the nation’s missile defense systems. The MDA manages the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system aimed at locating missiles in Alaska and California as well as development of the European missile shield, which includes plans for layers of defense: land- and sea-based missile interceptors along with other methods still in development.
Another measure of the bill protects the missile defense system in California and Alaska. In 2009, Secretary Gates announced cuts to a massive interceptor program by Boeing, and another program with Poland and the Czech Republic had already been cut the year prior. This measure may help assuage some Republicans’ concern over those prior cuts. It would also require an independent entity to review the system and report back to Congress within six months.
Although the House version of the bill contains language repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, President Obama, on the advice of Secretary Gates, has threatened to veto it for not cutting the excess programs.
Historically, the MDA has had an annual budget of over $10 billion. The agency requested $8.4 billion for next year but is likely to receive more. The House version of the bill authorized $10.3 billion, and the Senate Armed Forces Committee has called for $10.2 billion.
The House version of the bill, which passed on May 28th by a vote of 229 to 186 and totals $726 billion, includes a provision for $485 million for a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a program already delayed and over budget that the Pentagon estimates could eventually cost $2.9 billion. Additionally, the bill designated funds for C-17 transport planes that the Pentagon has deemed unnecessary. Some suggest the motivation for such items is either job creation or, more cynically, campaign donations to legislators from the companies set to receive the contracts. The version released by the Senate Armed Forces Committee lacks the provision for the alternate F-35 engine.
Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee head Ben Nelson stated that the funding regulation measure will add transparency and accountability to the program, benefiting both the program and the taxpayers. The agency was originally a research and development agency, a status that exempted it from the normal rules applying to defense weapons programs.
While campaigning for the 2008 race, Obama criticized President Bush’s missile defense policy as being too willing to pursue unproven technologies. He instead promised to use only those that are “proven and cost-effective.” Under a policy shift announced in September 2009, the program has become less focused on the traditional conception of a missile defense system located on the country’s borders and capable of shooting down an incoming missile. Missile defense is now more directed at defending against Iran’s increasing power in the Middle East. Iranian short- and medium-range missiles could reach Israel and Europe; some, specifically the Shahab III, could potentially carry nuclear warheads.
This shift in policy is unlikely to satisfy critics on the right who view this as leaving a gap in national defense. It is similarly unlikely to please missile defense critics on the left, who might point to previous failures of missile defense programs to intercept incoming targets in tests or to a recent study by scientists at M.I.T. and Cornell that concluded that the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) – on which the updated plans rely – is similarly ineffective. Neither side, however, can fault the increased accountability that comes with reporting individual baselines.
Image courtesy of Wired.com