After decades of effort and expense, the first U.S. missile defense is about to go on alert just as plans surface for it to be cut by a billion dollars in the next defense budget. The growing federal budget deficit means cuts must be made, but trimming missile defense should be done very carefully.
President Bush hoped to have an initial missile defense operational by year's end. A great deal has been done. Six interceptors are in their silos in Alaska and two in California, six warships with upgraded Aegis radars are on duty with the Pacific Fleet, and early warning radars and satellites are watching for missile launches. Extensive communications links are in place, but the shakedown of this incredibly complex system has taken longer than expected.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Dec. 22 that while he was not announcing an operational missile defense, "it would not take long to get there" were a threat detected.
Defenses are gradually becoming operational. But much remains to be done. This initial defense is to be expanded and improved in spiral upgrades every two years from 2006 to 2012, adding more interceptors in Alaska, an interceptor site in Europe, new sea-based interceptors, more new and upgraded radars, and new satellite-based sensors.
Getting these defenses in place is important to protect the nation against the threat of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. Just the last month has seen a flood of information on proliferation of these weapons. On Dec. 17, Stephen Rademaker, assistant secretary of state for arms control, said North Korea could any day flight-test a Taepo Dong 2 missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon. North Korea is believed to have a half-dozen nuclear devices.
Iran continues developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, while confronting and confusing efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency and European countries to contain its nuclear programs through toothless diplomacy.
And despite the end of the Cold War, Moscow has begun producing its new road-mobile Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile, and soon will produce its new Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The Russian defense minister has promised to maintain nuclear parity with the West, maintaining in service many of the old Soviet ICBMs, years past their normal service life.
With hundreds of these aging missiles remaining on hair-trigger alert, the chance of an accidental or unauthorized launch cannot be discounted. They may no longer be aimed at the United States, but that can be changed with a computer click.
Perhaps most serious is the major missile buildup under way in China, supported by arms exports from Russia. China's new mobile, solid-fuel ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles can threaten the U.S. mainland, while its growing arsenal of shorter-range missiles, soon expected to total 800, threatens Taiwan. The danger is real, since the Chinese military keeps threatening to "crush Taiwan," and is training for that purpose.
Because of the rapidly changing international environment, it is important to continue deploying the planned layered missile defenses. This effort must not be cut or stretched out because of budget constraints. But the Office of Management and Budget has directed the Missile Defense Agency to cut $1 billion from its proposed budget for next fiscal year, and more than $800 million a year thereafter.
Following four years of unrestrained spending by Congress and no vetoes by the White House, President Bush has promised to rein in spending in his second term. The growing budget deficit causes concern in financial circles, and foreign governments are urging Washington to cut the deficit and strengthen the dollar.
It is necessary to cut growth of federal spending, and few programs should be exempt. Anyone who has worked in Washington knows there is plenty of fat.
The trick is to cut fat while avoiding high-priority programs. Regarding missile defense, Congress has shown some wisdom. In the last two years, Congress cut $345 million from the $812 million the administration sought for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). This is an ill-conceived idea for a very high-speed interceptor that can stop missiles in the boost phase.
It would only marginally improve existing interceptors at great expense. Its operational concept, requiring it to get very close to hostile missiles on foreign soil, is very unrealistic. The billions of dollars to be spent on its long-term development can be cut with no harm to the planned missile defense deployments that are needed now. That way, the missile defense budget can be cut while missile defense deployments continue.