White House Veto Threat Cites Missile Defense, Code of Conduct

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the defense authorization bill being considered in the House of Representatives over a plethora of issues including provisions related to NATO cost sharing on a planned European missile shield, placing a missile defense site on the U.S. East Coast and an international code of conduct for space activity.

In a statement of administration policy released May 15, the White House also objected to a provision to terminate U.S. involvement in the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a missile defense system being developed jointly with Germany and Italy. The proposed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (H.R. 4310), with policy and funding guidance for the Pentagon, cleared the House Armed Services Committee May 10 and is slated to come before the full House May 17.

The White House statement, which cited objections to measures in areas ranging from funding to same-sex marriage, said the president’s advisers would recommend that he veto the bill if its cumulative effects impede the administration’s ability to execute its new defense strategy and “properly direct scarce resources.” The new defense strategy, unveiled in February, would restructure the U.S. military to deal with emerging threats in an era of constrained budgets.

Obama administration officials expressed specific concerns with bill provisions related to its Phased Adaptive Approach to defending Europe against missile attacks from the Middle East. The bill would fence off 25 percent of funding allocated for placing interceptors and sensors on European soil pending NATO’s response to a U.S. request for a “pre-financing” agreement, for example. It also would authorize just $83 million for the interceptor site in Europe, $75 million less than the Missile Defense Agency requested.

“These provisions would jeopardize the implementation of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to missile defense and limit the ability to protect the United States, deployed U.S. Forces, allies, and partners,” the White House said.

The administration also objected to a provision requiring the Defense Department field a missile defense site on the U.S. East Coast by the end of 2015. The bill directs the Secretary of Defense to evaluate three possible locations for the site and submit a report by Dec. 31, 2013.

The White House statement said the measure is “premature” because the administration has neither identified a requirement for a third U.S. missile defense site nor assessed its feasibility in the current budgetary environment. The Missile Defense Agency currently has interceptors at two U.S. sites: Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska.

The administration cited international obligations in objecting to the measure to cancel U.S. involvement in MEADS in 2013. The Defense Department requested $400 million next year for a MEADS testing program that the White House plans to complete before withdrawing from the longstanding effort.

“If the Congress does not appropriate [fiscal year] 2013 funding, there is a high likelihood that this action would be perceived by our partners Italy and Germany as breaking our commitment under the Memorandum of Understanding, and could harm our relationship with our Allies on a much broader basis, including future multinational cooperative projects,” the statement says. “It could also prevent the completion of the agreed Proof of Concept activities, which would provide data archiving, analysis of testing, and software development necessary to harvest technology from U.S. and partner investments in MEADS.”

MEADS is intended to replace the U.S. Army’s aging Patriot air and missile defense system and has been in development for more than a decade. The program is designed to use trucks equipped with interceptors and omni-directional radars to defeat cruise and short-range ballistic missiles. Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., is the lead U.S. contractor for MEADS. Numerous lawmakers have called for canceling the program, citing cost overruns and a tight budget environment.

The White House also voiced strong objection to proposed limitations on its freedom to negotiate a nonbinding code of conduct for spacefaring nations. The proposed code, which would draw from one originally drafted by the European Union, is designed to build confidence and prevent misunderstandings among nations that rely on satellites operating in an increasingly congested orbital environment.

The House bill would prohibit the use of defense funds to implement a code of conduct that has not been ratified by the Senate or authorized in law. The White House reiterated that, unlike a treaty, which requires Senate ratification, the proposed code is not legally binding. The bill also encroaches on the president’s “exclusive authority to conduct foreign relations and could severely hamper U.S. ability to conduct bilateral space activity with key allies,” the White House said.

Claude Chafin, communications director for the House Armed Services Committee, said the White House statement is “as remarkable for what they didn’t issue veto threats over as what they did.” He said the administration took issue with the overall defense spending level of $554 billion but not with any of the programs that drove it higher than what the president requested.