Proposed missile defense cuts likely to face little opposition

The Pentagon’s missile defense program took the biggest acquisition hit in the Bush administration’s 2006 defense budget request sent Monday to Capitol Hill, and it appears the cut will slip through this year’s rounds of budget negotiations with relative ease. Initial details from the budget submission indicate the administration has opted to fund short-term missile defense programs while slashing roughly $880 million in funds from Northrop Grumman’s kinetic-energy interceptor (KEI), a futuristic program designed to intercept ballistic missiles almost immediately after they are fired. The cuts will delay program fielding by one year, to 2013.
The Pentagon’s missile defense program took the biggest acquisition hit in the Bush administration’s 2006 defense budget request sent Monday to Capitol Hill, and it appears the cut will slip through this year’s rounds of budget negotiations with relative ease.

Initial details from the budget submission indicate the administration has opted to fund short-term missile defense programs while slashing roughly $880 million in funds from Northrop Grumman’s kinetic-energy interceptor (KEI), a futuristic program designed to intercept ballistic missiles almost immediately after they are fired. The cuts will delay program fielding by one year, to 2013.
Patrick G. Ryan
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), center


The cuts to missile defense reflect changing priorities for military planners, who are stripping funding from programs designed to tackle state threats and pouring money instead into systems that can defeat insurgents and terrorists.

In total, the administration’s $8.8 billion missile defense request was down more than $1 billion from what the Pentagon originally projected for 2006. Other missile defense programs received smaller cuts, though congressional sources said they are awaiting further details from the Pentagon to determine specific program details.

A spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said those details will be sent to the Hill later this month.

The MDA’s current budget strategy is to narrow the vast field of missile defense initiatives and move forward with those that are “showing the most promise and development,” Vice Adm. Robert Willard, director of force structures, resources and assessment for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Monday.

Even with the cuts in 2006, missile defense remains the largest program in the Defense Department’s acquisition budget. The Pentagon still wants to add five ground-based interceptors, bringing the total to 21, and 11 standard missile-3 missiles, for a total of 22. The budget also contains several billion dollars for research and development in various areas and increased spending on more near-term programs such as the airborne laser and the theater high-altitude areas defense system.

“The missile defense budget is a strong one and is tied directly to the pace we’re making in research and development,” said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Meanwhile, a legion of Democrats who have long opposed President Bush’s missile defense plans will likely welcome the cuts to the program but is still awaiting details on many aspects of the missile defense budget request.

“I think it is a wise move to reduce the budget,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee and a longtime opponent of the president’s missile defense plans. “The budget over the last several years has been artificially inflated for non-strategic reasons.”

Even the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a pro-missile-defense lobby, doesn’t plan to oppose the $1 billion cut, which is part of a broader $5 billion proposed cut to the program through 2011. Overall, the Pentagon wants to decrease defense spending by roughly $30 billion through 2011.

Missile defense programs are “sacrificing some funds as a team player,” said Riki Ellison, the alliance’s founder.

But for Northrop Grumman, the cut likely will not go unnoticed. The KEI program planted the company as one of the leaders in missile defense, putting it shoulder to shoulder with defense giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“Northrop Grumman has grown through acquisitions, [and] KEI was a symbol for what this new corporation could do,” said Philip Finnegan, a defense-industry analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. “And it is also an important growth area for the company.”

But, with major cuts to Northrop’s shipbuilding programs coming down the pike, the company “has its hands full in terms of lobbying,” Finnegan added.

Northrop Grumman spokes-man Randy Belote said the company “hasn’t either seen or been told at this point what the official number is or will be in the budget.” He added that if the program funding were officially decreased by $880 million, it would not be a devastating blow for KEI.

“KEI is an important part of the layered defense system that the administration has supported,” Belote said.

Aside from the issue of KEI funding, Democrats will likely press Pentagon officials on $350 million set aside in the missile defense budget for advanced concepts and special programs. The budget does not clarify what these programs are, and lawmakers and congressional staffers have not yet received more details from the department.

“We have to understand what these are,” Reed said.

As lawmakers gear up for what will likely be a contentious round of defense-budget talks, missile defense testing and evaluation will undoubtedly be a top issue, several congressional sources said.

Democrats in particular have long been wary of the administration’s plans to deploy a ground-based missile defense system in Alaska that has not been wrung through the Defense Department’s typical lengthy testing and evaluation process. A failed missile defense test in Alaska in December has increased their skepticism of the department’s testing plans.

“We have been insisting for years now to adopt operationally realistic testing,” Reed said. “As of today, they haven’t done that.”

Reed added that Democrats likely will press Pentagon officials on operational testing during the upcoming defense authorization hearings. The MDA plans to fund three tests on the ground-based system in 2006 and another three tests on the Navy’s Aegis ballistic-missile defense systems.