While the U.S. Department of Defense is pulling out all the budgetary stops to avert a gap in its space-based missile warning capabilities, the same cannot be said of its spending plan for the ground-based systems needed to maximize warning time for those most likely to be targeted by enemy missile attacks.

Even as it asks Congress for a combined $1.27 billion for the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) and a backup system known as the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS), the Pentagon seems unable to make budgetary room for the transportable ground equipment that would enable in-theater forces to receive SBIRS warning information directly. Without the Multi-Mission Mobile Processors, SBIRS data will have to be downlinked and processed in the United States before being relayed to troops in the field.

A Defense Department official said that even under ideal conditions this scheme will delay warning to overseas forces by a matter of a few seconds. That might not seem like a long time, but it is a veritable eternity for service men and women either manning missile defense batteries or simply trying to get out of harm’s way.

The price tag for each Multi-Mission Mobile Processor is $20 million to $30 million. With the U.S. Army and Air Force planning to field nine such systems between them, the total investment required is not insignificant. But it pales in comparison to what the Pentagon is spending on the space-based portions of SBIRS and AIRSS, not to mention the roughly $9 billion annual budget for U.S. missile defense programs.

The Pentagon has been known on occasion to shortchange the ground systems necessary to fully exploit its very costly space capabilities. The funding shortfall for the SBIRS Multi-Mission Mobile Processors appears to be a textbook case of this phenomenon.

The fact that it is not a unique circumstance does not make it acceptable, however: This is missile warning, after all. Moreover, improved warning of — and thereby better protection against — attacks by theater-based missiles is supposed to be one of the big capability advances SBIRS offers over its predecessor, the venerable Defense Support Program.

Unless the Air Force and Army have a viable plan for resolving this matter, Congress needs to step in. Lawmakers should demand from the services a complete explanation of the problem, its severity and potential impact, and possible solutions. To get the services’ attention, Congress could fence off funding in the 2008 budget request for any number of related Army and Air Force programs until they settle on, and fund, a concrete plan for coordinating the deployment of SBIRS with that of the Multi-Mission Mobile Processors or some equivalent capability.

If money has to be diverted from SBIRS or AIRSS to fund the Air Force’s share of the plan — the Army needs to do its part as well — so be it. With its first launch less than two years away, SBIRS hardly needs any more funding instability. However, the $1.04 billion SBIRS request for next year includes funds for a third satellite that the Air Force may or may not buy. Meanwhile, the size of the AIRSS request suggests the Air Force is approaching this program under the assumption that SBIRS procurement will be halted at two satellites.

Once the Defense Department makes its decision on a third SBIRS satellite — which for the sake of programmatic efficiency needs to happen soon — Congress should have a better idea of where to look for a portion of the funds needed for the theater-based SBIRS ground stations. U.S. troops deployed across the world deserve nothing less than the best available missile warning that technology allows.