Domenici-Rivlin Panel Seeks Missile Defense, Satellite Imagery Cuts

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WASHINGTON — As part of a proposal to reduce the U.S. government’s soaring debt, the nation should freeze the Pentagon’s budget, slash its missile defense spending by $5 billion a year and transition to less-expensive satellite imagery, a bipartisan debt-reduction panel recommended Nov. 17.

Led by retired U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici — the former Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee — and Alice Rivlin, who ran the White House Office of Management and Budget under then-President Bill Clinton, the panel warns that the United States risks harming its national security unless it overhauls its spending and taxation practices.

The Domenici-Rivlin panel, which was organized by a think tank here called the Bipartisan Policy Center, recommended capping defense spending at 2011 levels for five years and linking future budget increases to growth in the U.S. gross domestic product. The panel estimates these steps would save the United States $1.1 trillion through 2020.

Because military retirement and health care costs will continue to rise absent politically untenable benefit cuts, capping the defense budget will require the Pentagon to reduce its force structure and scale back its procurement and research budgets, the report said. The total active-duty military force would be reduced from 1.48 million to 1.21 million, scaling back the growth that resulted from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reducing the U.S. footprint in Western Europe and Asia, the report said.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates already has begun canceling and deferring major hardware procurement programs in an effort to shave $100 billion from the defense budget over the next five years. The task force recommended further cuts.

The United States currently spends about $10 billion a year on ballistic missile defense research and development programs. The threat of ballistic missile attacks to the United States has not materialized as quickly as once thought, and that budget could be adequately reduced to some $5 billion a year, the report said. The task force also recommended canceling the Medium Extended Air Defense System that the United States is developing with Italy and Germany and canceling the Army’s JLENS surveillance blimp. Also targeted for termination are the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the F-35 fighter jet.

The task force also called for maintaining the United States’ intelligence capabilities but at a reduced cost by consolidating agencies and information technology centers. It also called for the transition to “less expensive satellite imagery,” though it did not provide specifics.

The United States for decades has relied on very large and expensive optical spy satellites for strategic intelligence purposes. In the last decade many commercial optical imaging satellites have been launched, including those built by two companies subsidized by the U.S. government, DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., and GeoEye of Dulles, Va.

The White House in 2009 decided on a future path for satellite imagery that includes both national and commercial systems. The government plans to contract with Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver to build two large, exquisite-class imaging satellites based on existing designs. The government recently contracted with DigitalGlobe and GeoEye on the purchase of the imagery equivalent to two commercial imaging satellites. DigitalGlobe and GeoEye each were recently awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to continue providing commercial satellite imagery to the government for as long as 10 years.

The Domenici-Rivlin panel issued its report a week after U.S. President Barack Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released a report identifying some $200 billion in savings in 2015 through a combination of cuts to defense and other discretionary spending, including a proposal to scrap Obama’s plan to spend $6 billion through 2015 on NASA’s commercial spaceflight program.

On the defense side of the ledger, the president’s deficit task force recommended, among other cutbacks, reducing the Pentagon’s procurement budget by 15 percent, cutting 10 percent from its research, development, test and evaluation account — a significant funding source for military space projects — and canceling the satellite-compatible Joint Tactical Radio program.

Washington’s renewed focus on deficit reduction comes as leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to transfer in January to a newly elected Republican majority pledged to reining in spending.