OpEd: Cut Space-Based Defenses With Care

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The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) reportedly is planning to cut $955 million from its budget over the next five years. A cut is needed to pay for urgent requirements such as Iraq, Afghanistan and hurricane relief, and to reduce the deficit. But any cuts in missile defense spending must be done carefully to avoid delaying deployment of the basic ground- and sea-based defenses. Also, cuts in research and development for space-based defenses, which offer the best hope for the future, should be reconsidered.

Most worrisome is the MDA plan to cut $159 million from the fiscal year 2007 budget request for a third ground-based interceptor site in Europe and $312 million in future year spending for a space-based interceptor test bed. To its credit, MDA is not planning to delay the ongoing emplacement of ground-based interceptors in Alaska, or slow the deployment of ship-based missile defenses. Top priority is to continue fielding the planned ground- and sea-based interceptors.

While ground-based interceptors protect North America, sea-based weapons on Aegis ships can go where the threat is and, with support from land-based radars and space-based sensors, protect U.S. bases overseas, and our friends and allies . President George W. Bush has made the defense of our allies a key part of the missile defense program.

In NATO, there is a plan to integrate the missile defenses of member countries so they can communicate and operate jointly as an “alliance shield.” A missile defense site in Europe is essential to defend both North America and Europe against missiles from the Middle East. The belligerent attitude of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the recently elected president of Iran, who seems determined to develop nuclear weapons, raises this third U.S. missile defense site to a high priority.

Poland would be an excellent location to defend against a missile coming from Iran, and the new Polish government is showing interest. Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz said Nov. 14 that Poland is starting a public discussion of a missile defense site on its territory.

Ever since Saddam Hussein fired Scuds at Tehran in the 1980-’88 war between Iran and Iraq, Iran has been buying and developing missiles of increasing range and effectiveness. Iran already operates the Shahab-3 missile that can carry a 1 -ton warhead from Tehran to Tel Aviv, Israel. And Iran has tested a new solid-fuel rocket engine for use in a planned two-stage missile, which could deliver a nuclear weapon more than 3,218.6 kilometers, putting much of Europe at risk.

The other threat now emerging is the possible spread of advanced weapons or technologies from Russia to other countries. Moscow, which furiously opposed U.S. missile defenses, now is trying to counter them by developing weapons specifically designed to defeat them. The future of Moscow’s strategic forces is the SS-27 Topol-M mobile missile. Forty-six single-warhead SS-27s are deployed in silos. But now Moscow is adding up to 350 mobile SS-27s, each with three warheads. On Nov. 1 Russia flight-tested both a new maneuvering warhead and multiple independently targetable warheads (MIRVs) for use on the Topol-M.

Russian generals claim multiple maneuvering warheads launched from an off-road mobile missile using a fast-burn booster will defeat U.S. missile defenses and maintain the balance of terror for decades to come. But U.S. missile defenses are improving every year, and no one knows whether multiple maneuvering warheads can evade multiple maneuvering interceptors.

Since the U.S. has no intention of attacking Russia, why worry about these new Russian weapons, which mainly are intended to boost national pride and patriotism? The danger is that these new technologies may find their way to China, Iran, North Korea, or some other state or entity more likely to use or threaten to use them.

In a recent report, Moscow Gazeta claimed that nothing could stop Russia’s new nuclear weapons except space-based interceptors. The Russians may be right. Thus, it is important to proceed with the space-based interceptor test bed and get on with the development of a weapon that can perform that mission. Multiple maneuvering warheads are a reality. Yet, MDA plans to cut over $300 million from the space-based interceptor program in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, delaying even the start of work on such defenses until at least seven years from now.

Cutting the budget and living within our means is long overdue, but there are ways to achieve that goal without delaying construction of a missile defense site in Europe or postponing work on space-based defenses. The White House should direct the reallocation of funds to avoid delays in these important programs.

James Hackett is a former arms control official who now lives in Carlsbad, Calif., and writes on national security issues.