On the campaign trail Monday, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the Republican nominee for president, attempted to portray his Democratic opponent as inconsistent and soft on national security issues. He blasted Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), the Democratic nominee, for proposing to increase defense spending, despite a past commitment to “slow our development of future combat systems” and “cut investments in unproven missile-defense systems.” McCain argued that the world has become too dangerous to even consider these options.
Yet, just over a month ago, McCain’s senior economic advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, promised that McCain would de-fund these very same programs. In a submission to the Washington Post editorial board, Holtz-Eakin claimed that McCain would save $160 billion from reduced discretionary funding, some of it from Pentagon procurements, and another $150 billion from reduced deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the defense procurement programs McCain promised to ax from the budget were:
- The Airborne Laser (ABL), a project to develop plane-mounted anti-missile laser technology. The program could give the U.S. the capability to shoot down ballistic missiles in their boost phase, soon after launch.
- The Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS), a program of combat support vehicles and technology, designed to make the army a more flexible, easily deployable force.
These programs should be the target of budget cuts, and both Obama and McCain are right to say so.
The ABL is, as yet, an unproven system. Although the laser component was recently fired in ground tests, it has not been tested under realistic conditions. There is little probability that it will prove to be an effective aerial weapon. The American Physical Society, which studied boost phase missile defense technology, including the ABL in 2004, concluded that “only two to three minutes would be available” to intercept a missile in its boost phase. The society also concluded that the ABL’s limited range would hinder its effectiveness. It noted that if a solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile were launched from central Iran, the boost phase would be over well before it left Iranian airspace. The ABL would almost certainly not be close enough to be effective while the missile was still in Iranian airspace.
The FCS is equally troublesome. Although its advanced technology is necessary to support the ground forces, too many of the FCS system components are as yet unproven. In March 2008, the GAO reported that the FCS program was not developing at an acceptable rate. It noted that the program had been undertaken “without proven technologies, a stable design, and available funding and time.” Slowing down the development of this program in order to define its goals and progress better would be a sensible step.
McCain should take a close look at his past statements before he criticizes his opponent’s national security credentials. Indeed, not only did he promise to cut the ABL and FCS programs, but doing so was a key part in his proposal to reduce federal budget expenditure by $470 billion in the FY2013 budget (As we demonstrated last month, his numbers just don’t add up). Instead of painting his opponent as weak on national security, McCain should welcome the opportunity to have a real debate with Senator Obama about sensible defense spending.