Shelving of Missile Defense Reflected Military's Concerns

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

Call it another revolt of the generals. More than 13 years ago, the nation's military leaders told civilian defense officials they wanted to limit spending on missile defenses and to emphasize the protection of forces deployed overseas over defense of the American homeland against a long-range missile threat.

Last week, after a lengthy internal Pentagon review and against the backdrop of new limits on overall military spending, the generals again threw their weight behind a relative contraction of the effort to defend against long-range missile attacks. They cited needed budgetary savings and more immediate threats in demanding faster work to protect overseas forces and bases against shorter-range attack.

The latest shift shelved a plan to deploy in Europe an advanced radar and interceptors of long-range missiles by 2017. And it adds impetus to the Pentagon's request earlier this year for a cut of about 15 percent in overall missile defense spending, a scaling back of the deployment of long-range missile interceptors in Alaska and California, and the cancellation of three costly Reagan-era missile defense programs that officials say had threatened to balloon out of budgetary control.

"I believe what's happening is what you witnessed happening in the Clinton years," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and a longtime critic of the focus on national missile defense. "The military never liked this stuff; they were willing to support it as long as the budget was increasing, as the president's pet rock. But as soon as the budget starts contracting, they're willing to throw this overboard."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday emphasized that defense of the U.S. homeland remains a priority, and that some related research is being expanded even as deployments are being deferred. Gates, after touring the Alaska site in June, expressed confidence that its interceptors could field an attack from North Korea.

But last week's announcement is clearly another step in a steady evolution of the $125 billion program's central focus from President Ronald Reagan's grand vision of a national shield, popularly known as Star Wars, to a more limited defense of U.S. assets in foreign theaters.

Robert G. Joseph, an undersecretary of state and a missile defense advocate during the Bush administration, said it reflects in part the traditional focus of uniformed officers on short- and medium-range missile threats, and also their conviction that advanced defenses to protect the United States are a competitor for resources.

But Joseph said he thinks that instead of striking the right balance, as he believes the Bush administration did, Obama's decision will lead to "a weakening of our capability against long-range threats." He also said that any decision not to protect against blackmail and intimidation by foreign leaders armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles would be relying on "dangerously outdated" theories of warfare.

Gates, responding to similar criticism in a New York Times op-ed Sunday, said: "I have found since taking this post that when it comes to missile defense, some hold a view bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith."

Technical obstacles, as well as political shifts, have dictated the downward slope of the program's ambitions.

As the Cold War ended in the late 1980s and Iraqi Scud missiles rained on U.S. and allied military targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel during the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, the space-based smart rocks and chemical or nuclear-pumped lasers that galvanized Reagan's excitement and ignited fierce technical controversy at the outset of the Strategic Defense Initiative were abandoned as impractical, unnecessary and inappropriate.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton added new emphasis to theater missile defenses in an entity he renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. But the simmering financial resentments of uniformed officers found voice in a 1996 decision by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, a top decision-making group headed by one of Cartwright's predecessors on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The group declared bluntly that the missile defense budget should be constrained to "save dollars that can be given back to the Services to be used for critical recapitalization programs."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company