U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2008 budget request as it relates to space and missile defense has drawn some early criticism, with more likely to come as the interested parties digest its contents, but viewed as a whole and in the proper context, the plan is reasonable, even generous.
Funding for NASA and unclassified U.S. Air Force space programs would increase next year — significantly, in the latter case — under the president’s proposal. The Missile Defense Agency would see a decrease in funding compared to 2007, but that area of the Pentagon’s budget has fared better than most in recent years.
The $17.3 billion allocated for NASA is not as much as some would have liked, and won’t be of much help in relieving the stress on the science portion of the agency’s portfolio, but it is at least consistent with what the White House said it would do at this time last year. It constitutes a 3 percent increase over what the administration requested for NASA for 2007, which is not so bad considering that the overall plan holds non-defense domestic programs to 1 percent funding hikes on average.
When compared to the 2007 budget NASA appears likely to receive this year under the domestic federal spending resolution negotiated by top Democrats in the House and Senate, the request represents an increase of more than 6 percent. This is not so much to credit the administration as it is to make the point that that Congress — the source of some early criticism of the president’s NASA budget — has had a hand in the agency’s current plight.
The Air Force, meanwhile, would receive $11 billion for space programs in 2008, an increase of 16 percent over 2007. An increase of that size is certainly good news, and suggests, as a senior Air Force official asserted, that space remains a top Pentagon priority, but there is an important qualifier.
The increase appears driven in part by spending surges on two missile warning efforts: the long-troubled Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), whose deployment begins in 2008; and its prospective replacement, the Alternative Infrared Satellite System. The Air Force is hedging its bets by including funds for a third SBIRS satellite that it may or may not buy, while ramping up spending on a back-up system. This might seem extravagant, but missile warning is simply too important to be left to chance. Even so, and while the White House deserves credit for being prepared to spend whatever it takes to ensure the nation’s future missile warning capabilities, it is unfortunate that the situation has come to this.
Also unfortunate is the reality that there has to be a bill payer for the missile warning insurance policy, and that role apparently has fallen to the Transformational Satellite Communications system. The request for this program, at $964 million, is roughly $500 million less than the Air Force anticipated at this time last year. The result will be a two-year delay and ultimately a higher price tag for this urgently needed capability.
On the Space Radar, there is good news and potentially bad news. The good news is that the Air Force’s partner on Space Radar, the National Reconnaissance Office, is for the first time stepping up with real funding for the program. As a result, however, the budget for Space Radar is now classified. It remains to be seen — or not, as the case may be — whether Space Radar will live up to its billing as a system that is as responsive to the needs of military commanders in the field as it is to the intelligence community.
Unambiguously positive is the Air Force’s 2008 request for Operationally Responsive Space programs, which is more than double this year’s appropriation and includes money to begin procuring up to 10 launches aboard small rockets. Hopefully, this demonstrates a commitment on the part of the mainstream Air Force to finding new and innovative ways to exploit the space medium.
For the Missile Defense Agency, the 2008 budget request is some $500 million below this year’s appropriation and short by a similar sum of what agency officials had been hoping for. The impact of the decline, which an agency official attributed to internal Pentagon budget pressures, includes cancellation of the High Altitude Airship sensor program and the deferral of plans to deploy an operational constellation of missile-tracking satellites, the Space Tracking and Surveillance System. The budget also scales back work that had been planned on future capabilities such as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor and space-based defenses.
What the request does provide for is continued deployment and testing of the Missile Defense Agency’s primary defensive systems: The Ground-based Midcourse Defense, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and Aegis sea-based Ballistic Missile Defense systems. Testing these systems under increasingly realistic and demanding attack scenarios should take the highest priority: There is little point in pursuing widespread and costly deployment of interceptors whose capabilities are unknown.
As is always the case, worthy space-related programs will be shortchanged in this budget, while other not so deserving programs will continue to be generously funded.
Nevertheless, while there are flaws in this budget request that need to be addressed responsibly by Congress, the plan, on balance, is solid. It would fund a broad array of space programs at a time there is mounting pressure on federal spending across the board, and unrelenting demand for resources to support the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.