little more than a year ago North Korea test-fired a Taepodong-2 missile, rattling its neighbors and drawing worldwide condemnation. The test itself wasn’t a shock – the nation sent a missile over Japan in 1998. But the Taepodong-2 is a long-range ICBM that some predict could reach Alaska or even the West Coast of the United States with further development. While the test flight ended in the Sea of Japan after about 40 seconds, it underscores the importance of developing a viable and robust missile defense system for the United States.
This makes the actions taken by Congress so far this year a bit shortsighted, to say the least. Instead of adding more resources to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to ensure we are protected from the Taepodong-2 and other threats, lawmakers are cutting the budget. The House and Senate recently voted for a Defense Appropriations bill that will significantly reduce MDA’s budget, including cutting most of the funding for the promising Airborne Laser program. The cuts are deepest in long-term, advanced development projects, a number of which are space-based. These technologies hold the most promise of protecting the United States and our allies around the world, and lawmakers should reconsider their investment priorities in the years to come.
It’s hard to imagine a more open-and-shut case of an initiative that merits resources and investment more than missile defense. In addition to the threat from North Korea, another challenge comes from Iran as it develops both medium- and long-range missiles. Iran tested both types of missiles last year, a fact made more troublesome by its ongoing nuclear program. Helping protect our allies is a vital part of our long-term global defense strategy. Our long-term missile defense goals include locating countermeasures in Europe and other areas to protect our allies, who are counting on our leadership.
The administration’s budget request for fiscal 2008 included healthy funding levels for missile defense. Congress has shown a willingness to support projects slated for the near term, a clear demonstration that lawmakers understand the threats. However, earlier this year they applied the budget ax to the MDA’s most innovative and breakthrough technologies.
The MDA’s recent track record has demonstrated the system is on the right path, with capabilities that continue to develop. But budget constraints led the agency to make tough choices, opting to focus on near-term solutions at the expense of longer-term capabilities, specifically for space-based and advanced technology assets. The rising threats around the world highlight the importance of a layered defense strategy to deter potential adversaries. Without a forward-looking approach and the appropriate funding strategy to develop long-term, advanced projects, the United States will lag in providing the capabilities necessary to counter increased threats from both rogue countries and extra-national enemies.
Space-based systems, such as the Defense Support Program, the Space Based Infrared System and the in-development Space Tracking and Surveillance System, have the unique ability to offset, detect and deter threats and the flexibility to more quickly address challenges as they arise. Enhanced surveillance will be needed to ensure continuous and reliable global tracking. Enhanced space-based surveillance also will help us detect and destroy hostile ballistic missiles within seconds after they are launched – before they can threaten U.S. forces, our allies or our homeland.
Without a long-term approach, the unique ability of space-based assets to detect and deter missile warning threats will fall short. Lawmakers must provide a balanced funding strategy that recognizes the importance of not just sustaining current near-term systems, but also invests in continued research and development of advanced, critical high-technology programs.
We all know that long-term research is difficult to sustain when short-term needs are pressing. This is especially true in the final year of a two-term administration. In this case it is easy to see why Congress, hard-pressed to fund near-term needs, might choose to reduce funding for technologies that may take years to mature. The technologies in this case, however, form the cutting edge of work that must, and eventually will, be done. In cases like this, the lesson of history is clear – sooner is better.
John W. Douglass is the retiring president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), who is remaining in an advisory role through the end of the year.