Weldon Presses Missile Defense Cooperation With Russia

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The U.S. Department of Defense may face repercussions from Capitol Hill if it does not come up with an avenue for cooperative work with Russia on missile defense soon, according to a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.

U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he is disappointed with the Pentagon’s inability to find a replacement for the Russian American Observation Satellite (Ramos ) program, a missile defense experiment that was canceled last year.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said in its 2005 budget request that it would find a substitute cooperative program, but there is no such program in its 2006 funding request.

“It’s very troubling,” Weldon said in a Feb. 24 interview. “I’m not happy at all” with the Pentagon, he said.

By not filling the void left by Ramos’ cancellation, the United States is sending the wrong signal to Russia about its intentions in missile defense, Weldon said. He said he plans to address the issue once Congress begins working on the 2006 defense authorization and appropriations legislation.

The Ramos program, which dates back to 1993, was intended to ease tensions and foster cooperation on missile defense between the United States and Russia through the development of two experimental missile warning satellites. But the effort stalled due to anemic funding and disagreements over how to proceed , with both sides at one time or another accusing the other of losing interest.

The MDA chose to opt out after it was unable to wrap up an agreement with Russian officials on how to finish the effort. The Pentagon had invested more than $100 million as of early 2004, and would have needed to spend several times that amount to finish the satellites, according to a letter sent last February by Michael Wynne, the Pentagon’s acting acquisition chief, to then-Russian Deputy Defense Minister Mikhail Dmitriev.

Weldon has been the most vocal advocate for cooperation with Russia on missile defense on Capitol Hill, but he is not alone.

Seven U.S. senators, including Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter last March to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urging him to reconsider the decision to terminate Ramos .

At around the same time, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), whose district includes the Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, the leading U.S. participant in Ramos , asked Pentagon officials during a House Armed Services Committee hearing to reconsider the cancellation decision and raised the possibility of scaling back the work.

It is not clear at this point whether these or other lawmakers will join Weldon in pressing the MDA this year for some sort of cooperative effort with Russia, congressional aides said. The Pentagon has yet to deliver detailed justification materials for items in its 2006 budget request, and members and staff will need to review that information before determining their defense-related priorities for the near future, the aides said.

Weldon said he brought U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering, the MDA’s director, to Moscow last year to discuss potential cooperative initiatives with Russian defense officials. That trip helped generate a proposal that included joint development of an early warning radar system and the possible use of Russian rockets as missile defense targets, but the deal was squashed in late 2004 by Pentagon lawyers, he said.

A Pentagon official, who did not want to be identified, confirmed that the MDA had discussed the proposal with Russian officials. But the official said skepticism about the benefits versus cost of the plan rather than objections from lawyers caused the Pentagon to back away.

The Pentagon remains in discussions with Russia on missile defense cooperation, the official said, noting that one such meeting was held in Arlington, Va., Feb. 25.

Baker Spring, a senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank here, said Ramos represented one of several avenues for U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation. He said the Pentagon has brought in Russian officials for some of its missile defense simulation exercises at the Joint National Integration Center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., and should continue to do so to foster a healthy relationship with Russia.

Another option is sharing missile-launch early warning information with Russia , Spring said. Russian air-defense radar systems might be able to provide the United States with a closer look at missiles launched from Iran than U.S. systems, while the United States could share information with Russia from its own sensors deployed around the world, Spring said.