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."
North Korea's 1998 launch of a Taepo Dong missile over Japan helped provoke Congress to enact the National Missile Defense Act of 1999, which ordered the deployment "as soon as is technologically possible" of a homeland defense.
But former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard C. Clarke said the Bush administration took that idea and ran too far with it. Clarke faulted Bush's other national security aides for caring more about reinvigorating national missile defense than about al-Qaeda.
Bush upgraded the program by placing it under the control of an independent agency, exempt from normal Pentagon oversight and regulations meant to compel a rigorous weighing of its merits against the value of other defense programs. "I am committed to deploying a missile defense system as son as possible to protect the American people and our deployed forces," Bush said as he abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.
But his expansion of the annual missile defense budget from $3.7 billion to an all-time high of $9 billion in 2007 provoked controversy inside and outside the Pentagon. So did his deployment of long-range missile interceptors in a system that the Pentagon's testing office said did not offer "a high degree of confidence in its limited capabilities."
Military resentment at the program's special treatment was expressed in an August 2008 study by the Pentagon-funded Institute for Defense Analyses. It called for "increased interaction between the MDA and other relevant parts of DOD" -- a polite way of demanding the program pay more attention to real-world military needs and applications.
The defense budget realities also changed this year, as Obama made clear that the department will enjoy a growth of only a few percent annually in the coming years. Gates decided to review the program more rigorously and to cancel three legacies of the Reagan era: a complex airborne laser and what are known as the Multiple Kill Vehicle and Kinetic Energy Interceptor programs, each aimed mostly at defending against medium- or long-range missile threats.
Of the airborne laser, Gates said: "I don't know anybody at the Department of Defense . . . who thinks that this program should, or would, ever be operationally deployed." He described the latter, which had once been intended for deployment by 2010, as one of several missile defense concepts that were "fatally flawed . . . [or] sinkholes for taxpayer dollars."
A spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency said that even with last week's decision to concentrate more resources on an earlier deployment of defenses against Iran's short- and medium-range missiles, spending related to long-range threats would still remain between a quarter and a third of the nation's overall effort.
But as a senior military official told reporters at the White House, the reason the administration's decision came last week is that the military services are "building their budgets" for fiscal year 2011. The newly revamped program, he said, "costs less to develop and field and operate."