Democrats Likely To Press MDA on Testing of Ground Based Midcourse Defense System


– Bipartisan agreement on most military space issues other than the deployment of space-based weapons likely means that there will not be a major change in approach as Democrats take the helm of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, according to congressional aides.


However, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) will face a less sympathetic audience from the new majority, with Democrats pressing forward with an agenda that Republicans did not support when they were in the majority. Democratic members of Congress and their staffs in recent years have complained that MDA did not provide Congress with sufficient insight into its programs and moved forward too quickly with the deployment of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD).


Efforts by Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee to slow or curtail MDA initiatives during budget mark up sessions were often defeated on party-line votes. The Senate Armed Services Committee conducts its markup work in sessions closed to the public.


Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who now chairs the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said in a Jan. 16 interview that she feels MDA has operated in the past as though it was not being held to the same standards as other Defense Department organizations. Tauscher said she would like to see that changed.


MDA’s testing of systems like GMD has not undergone the same scrutiny from independent military weapons testers as other military systems, a policy that ought to be reversed, Tauscher said.


Tauscher said the lack of rigorous independent testing makes it hard to judge the effectiveness of systems like GMD. She said she hoped to gain more insight following a visit to missile defense facilities in
, that could take place as early as Jan. 20.


“I have big questions because MDA has been allowed by this administration to effectively go around the basic program requirements, and I don’t know that there have been any realistic tests,” Tauscher said. “I don’t know about countermeasures, or if it’s a rainy day or if there are multiple launches, which leaves me with a lot of skepticism about what we’ve been doing.”


Rick Lehner, an MDA spokesman, said that the agency disagrees with Tauscher’s assessment. Lehner said the agency has conducted dozens of briefings over the past several years for members of Congress and their staffs, answered hundreds of requests for information from Capitol Hill, and has provided Congress with reams of data about its programs in budget justification materials. MDA also has had up to 100 “operational testing officials” embedded with the GMD program alone, he said.


Tauscher said that she hoped to conduct more oversight hearings than her panel had held in previous sessions, as well as plan more weekend trips that could enable the subcommittee members to get a close look at military work in a variety of areas without forcing them to miss votes on Capitol Hill.


Tauscher also said that she is not eager for the military to move forward with weapons in space or space-based missile interceptors. Democrats in both the House and Senate have opposed development of such systems, with Republicans generally being more supportive.


MDA planned to request $45 million for a space-based missile interceptor test bed beginning with its 2008 budget, which the Pentagon plans to send to Capitol Hill in early February. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), the previous chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, told reporters in October that he would like to see the Pentagon move forward with testing of space-based anti-satellite weapons that could strike satellites used to threaten


“We are certainly not ready to begin a space-based test bed of any kind,” Tauscher said.


Development of space-based weapons or missile interceptors could encourage similar work by other countries and possibly lead to creation of orbital debris that could harm satellites, Tauscher said. She declined to comment on reports that
had recently tested an anti-satellite weapon.


Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank, said the reports of the Chinese demonstration could make it more difficult for Democrats to oppose work on space-based missile interceptors, which may be able to shoot down a rocket carrying an anti-satellite weapon that is launched from the ground, as was reportedly used in the Chinese test. She expressed hope that a diplomatic solution could avert deployment of such systems.


Tauscher said that she expects to provide less funding than MDA requests for its budget in 2008, though she predicted “a haircut, not a scalping.” Her panel had reduced MDA’s 2007 budget request of $9.3 billion by $185 million during its mark up session last year.


One missile defense advocate expressed hope that Democratic skepticism about the effectiveness of the GMD system would not lead to a halt in putting new interceptors on alert. Riki Ellison, president of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, an
group, said that the current number of GMD interceptors on alert at
and Vandenberg Air Force Base in
is not sufficient to keep pace with the threat from countries like
North Korea


The most vulnerable missile defense programs are likely the next generation of interceptors such as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a high-speed rocket intended to knock down enemy missiles shortly after take off; the Airborne Laser, a laser-equipped 747 aircraft intended to shoot down missiles in their boost phase; and the Multiple Kill Vehicle, a kill vehicle that would take a shotgun approach to destroying enemy missiles as they coast through space, Ellison said. Slowing or stopping work on those efforts could cause the Pentagon to be unprepared to counter the threats it may face in the future, he said.


Other issues for Congress to consider include future upgrades to the military’s sea-based missile defense. A Dec. 19 report prepared for members of Congress by the Congressional Research Service noted that Congress will have to weigh the cost of improvements to the sensors and interceptors used by Aegis ships to shoot down missiles in their midcourse phase. The report said Congress should also consider replacing the canceled Navy Area Defense system, which was intended to shoot down missiles in their terminal phase of flight. That program was canceled in 2001 due to cost overruns. The report was distributed publicly by Secrecy News, an electronic newsletter that is part of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.


MDA is currently experimenting with modifications to the Aegis firing system used for midcourse defense and Standard Missile-2 rockets as a near-term solution for terminal defense. A long-term solution could involve modifications to the Aegis fleet coupled with a variant of the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 or Standard Missile interceptors, according to MDA officials.


Other issues that could receive focus in this session of Congress include improvements to the Air Force’s ability to keep tabs on objects in space. Pentagon budget documents indicate that the Air Force plans to scale back planned spending on improvements to the Space Fence, a ground-based network of radar stations deployed across the southern region of the United States, which is puzzling given the increased priority that the service has placed on space surveillance in the past year or so, according to congressional aides.


However, the aides said an increased focus on space surveillance is not a partisan issue, and would have been likely had Republicans maintained control of Congress.