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Keeping an eye on the goal

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In recent remarks, three U.S. senators urged the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to keep its eye on the goal -- the near-term deployment of missile defenses. They worry spending large sums in a tight federal budget to develop futuristic defenses will harm near-term deployment and improvement of defenses.

Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said in a May 11 hearing that the defense budget "is coming down," so MDA should focus on near-term deployment priorities. The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, asked why MDA cut funds from the enormously successful program to develop ship-based missile defenses, while spending money on more risky programs.

This is especially important since Japan has just agreed to spend $600 million over the next five years to help the U.S. Navy develop a Block II version of its sea-based SM-3 missile interceptor, to give it larger rocket engines and warheads. This will increase the interceptor's range and speed, enabling U.S. and Japanese Aegis warships to defend greater areas against longer-range missiles.

In separate remarks at a May 12 Capitol Hill breakfast, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, also emphasized the need to focus on improving existing missile defenses. Sens. Stevens and Kyl used similar words in saying the need to reduce the federal deficit means this year's missile defense budget of $8.78 billion is the "high watermark" of spending for that purpose.

The administration's 2006 budget request for missile defense is a billion dollars less, and future budgets are not expected to return to the 2005 level. Thus, the senators say, it is important to spend the limited funds available on the near-term priorities of fielding more ground-based midcourse interceptors and beginning deployment of ship-based missile defenses on the 18 destroyers and cruisers earmarked for that purpose.

The White House ordered the cut in missile defense spending in 2006,but let MDA decide what to cut. The agency wisely cut $870 million from the overambitious Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) program to develop a very high-speed interceptor.

The original idea was to use a high-speed interceptor to stop missiles in the boost phase, the first three minutes or so after launch. But the obvious difficulties in getting close enough to an enemy missile launch location, especially if the missiles are mobile, and to intercept in a matter of seconds, made that a very unlikely option. Consequently, the MDA cut that program deeply and made the Airborne Laser (ABL) its primary development effort for boost-phase defense.

The ABL has continued achieving development milestones, and is beginning to look like a breakthrough technology able to destroy multiple enemy missiles and decoys with light speed. That capability, if fully realized, can deal with the very short timelines of boost-phase defense and the decoy problems a boost-phase capability is intended to solve. The ABL looks so promising the MDA is beginning to consider other uses for it.

But even as ABL development smartly moves forward, with an intercept test planned for 2008, the MDA still plans to spend nearly $5 billion on the KEI program over the next five years, more than on the ABL. Now there is new rationale for KEI, said to be for risk mitigation in case the ABL does not continue its successful development. And a future KEI interceptor is presented as a possible replacement for the midcourse interceptors now being deployed.

It is not clear why billions of dollars would be spent to develop a new interceptor to replace existing ones instead of following the usual cost-effective Defense Department practice of modifying and improving deployed weapons in block upgrades.

The House Armed Services Committee has raised similar questions, endorsing the primacy of the ABL program, while questioning spending on two different boost-phase systems.

As the defense budget moves through Congress, members of both houses urge the MDA to remember the need to spend the taxpayers' dollars wisely, and to stay focused on the primary goal of deploying defenses and then improving them.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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