The Administration’s Middling On Missile Defense

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Don't play Star Wars

Don't play Star Wars

The Administration’s new Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which came out last week with the QDR, is strategically refreshing. Unfortunately, however, the corresponding budget for long-range missile defense is anything but. And when it comes to defense programs, money talks.

The Ballistic Missile Review talks importantly about not investing in exotic unproven programs designed to protect against threats that may never materialize, which is a direct swipe at missile defense programs focused on stopping long-range inter-continental ballistic missiles. This in many ways builds off the Obama administration’s previous actions on missile defense such as: focusing on more proven theater based systems that protect against short and medium range missiles (such as those held by Iran); abandoning a strategically useless ground-based missile system in Europe, cutting futuristic programs such as the Airborne Laser and the Multiple Kill Vehicles, as well as reducing funds for the fanciful ground based program in the US. All of these are definitely steps in the right direction, and have consequentially irked missile-defense-hugging neoconservatives.

However, despite the nice talk in the recently released review and all the talk of fiscal discipline, the Administration has failed to follow through in its current budget. Fred Kaplan of Slate notes:

There’s a mismatch, however, between Gates’ words and his actions. His proposed missile defense budget for fiscal year 2011 amounts to a staggering $10.4 billion. This is $2 billion less than George W. Bush requested (and received) for missile defense—his most cherished military program—in his last year as president. But it’s $700 million more than Gates himself received in FY 2010. The program is getting more expensive and, in some respects, more exotic—not less.

Kaplan also points out the strategic dissonance of the Administration’s middling approach. By killing off programs that focus on shooting down a missile in its initial boost-phase, such as the Airborne Laser, Gates is essentially cutting off one of the major conceptual legs of Bush’s multi-phased missile defense system. Not only is this a kin to the Administration acknowledging that the whole concept behind the program is deeply unsound, but by removing one of the system’s legs, Kaplan explains, the system simply can’t stand.

But if boost-phase intercept is a vital part of a missile-defense system, if all the ideas for boost-phase intercept have washed out, and if the only thing going for it is a laser-research project that’s not likely to bear fruit for decades, if ever—then the whole vision of a multi-phased missile-defense system is in deep trouble. If that’s the case, and if there’s no way around it, the idea of spending $10.4 billion on a dream system begins to sound like a fool’s errand.

In other words, Gates has effectively determined that the concept behind Bush’s multi-phase system is bunk, yet the Administration is still funding the rest of the system as if it were strategically sound and nothing had changed. Instead of putting the long-range missile program out of its misery and diverting that money to more essential programs – such as paying for the wars we are fighting – the Administration is just middling around the edges on long-range missile defense.