Bill Steigerwald

A: There are obviously several reasons, but let's start with the one that I think is most immediate, which is the political one: That is that the United States and Poland and the Czech Republic have all arrived at the conclusion that it is important for them on a bilateral basis to reinforce the basic alliance commitments that are present in the NATO structure and that anything that could be seen as breaking those bonds, either in the NATO context or in the bilateral context, would be very, very damaging and I think would invite more aggressive behavior on the part of Russia and other states.

On the military side, the United States has long-range missile defense interceptors located in Alaska and California. They are more ideally suited to protecting the United States from a launch that would occur from North Korea. That system has some capability but is not ideally located to counter a missile that could be launched by Iran, particularly toward the eastern portion of the United States.

The final thing is that the United States missile defense plans are to provide protection to our friends and allies as well as to U.S. territory. Against intermediate- to longer-range missiles, ones that were to fly out of a place like Iran or Pakistan or somewhere else in the greater Middle East in the direction of Western Europe, there is no protection there at the moment. Until these interceptors go in, that will remain the case. These interceptors in Poland would be for the defense for the United States as well as the defense of Western Europe against missiles of that range.

Q: Does this missile defense system really work?

A: Absolutely. Let's look at this: All of the missile defense systems that are in the field today . use the same basic technology, which is "hit-to-kill" technology. That means it doesn't contain an explosive warhead. The interceptor missile actually directs itself into the path of the incoming missile and destroys it by the force of collision at incredibly high speeds. . According to the Missile Defense Agency, as of December, when there was a successful ground-based mid-course defense-intercept test over the Pacific, hit-to-kill technology's record is basically 37 for 47, going back to 2001.

Q: Will we ultimately see an anti-missile system installed in Poland and/or the Czech Republic?

A: I think it will go in. Does that mean it will go in necessarily in exactly the configuration that we have now? It might, it might not. I suspect that it is almost a certainty that the politics surrounding the deployment will change. I think in the context of other things regarding our relationship with Russia that there could be greater missile-defense cooperation between the United States and Russia, particularly if the missile proliferation problem continues along the path that it currently is in South Asia and the greater Middle East because the Russians will have an interest in defending themselves as much as we will. You've got to remember, they have a missile defense system that goes all the way back to the Soviet era around Moscow. So I think the United States is going to continue to engage with Russia on questions of missile-defense cooperation between those two countries that could pave the way for also at least reduced objections from Russia regarding the fueling of the systems in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Q: What is your current general assessment of defense spending right now? Is it too high, too low, just right?

A: If you take the last formal budget presentation of the Bush administration, which was released roughly a year ago -- and we look at it in terms of the core program, those things that are really meant to build our military, as opposed to the supplemental appropriations that are meant to fund ongoing operations, largely speaking -- we think that the core defense program that was presented by the Bush administration was in fact too low to fund the program that we need.

We think the United States cannot build the military it needs on the basis of only the specific operational requirements that we have today. In other words, the focus today is on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, but tomorrow we may be facing an organized army in some way or another -- maybe North Korea, for example. We believe the United States has to build a balanced force, one that will give it the basic building blocks to respond to any operational requirements that may not be in the end predictable.

We think when you look at that -- and as well as you look at it from a fiscal policy standpoint, from the overall budget of the United States -- that we ought to spend for the core defense program no less than 4 percent of our gross domestic product. That means we recognize to a certain degree that if the U.S. economy is hurting -- that at least as you look at long-term defense spending patterns -- that you may have to scale back at the margin. But clearly the U.S. economy, in my judgment, will still be robust enough to field a very credible military at that 4 percent benchmark.

Q: For the average citizen out there, they often hear that defense spending is really, really high. Is that true?

A: It's not true. Let's use the broadest comparisons. Back in World War II we were over 40 percent of GDP at its peak for defense. In the early stages of the Cold War, the 1950s and the 1960s, we were at roughly 10 percent. In the years of the Reagan buildup we were at about 6 percent. Even in today's context, including the supplemental appropriations, you are only slightly more than 4 percent.

Q: Is that counting Iraq and Afghanistan?

A: Yes. Absolutely. It's slightly more than 4 percent.

Q: That dropping percentage of GDP is testimony to the great economic growth of the United States, in part, right?

A: That's correct. But I also have to say that it comes against a comparison of the major entitlements (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid), which have gone from in the early 1960s from about 2 percent of GDP to today where they are in excess of 8 percent -- and are on their way to between 20 and 25 percent later in this century. So at least as percentages of GDP -- not in dollar terms, I admit -- you have basically every dollar that is going into those major entitlement programs coming out of defense.

Q: Is this money well-spent? We know that governments don't spend their money well.

A: In terms of defense? It's a mixed bag. Some of it is spent very, very well. Other portions, because, for example Congress earmarks in defense like it earmarks everywhere else, there are some things that are wasteful. Certainly I'd like to a more efficient defense budget. We've talked about things like acquisition reform, about how we pay our military and other things that would help make it more efficient.

But at the end of the day there are two really important distinctions to make. One is they say, "Why can't you run the Department of Defense like a business?" The answer to that is twofold: One is that it is not a business. Obviously we wouldn't want it to generate a profit for shareholders. ... So it's a little bit misleading to say that we could solve all of this if we ran the defense department like a business.

The second thing is that when you are dealing with military matters a certain amount -- indeed, a significant amount -- of redundancy and reinforcement is absolutely necessary. The idea that you can go into defense planning and say, "I know exactly what I need to spend on defense and not a penny more" is just flat wrong.

Q: How much do we spend on defense and how much do we spend on offense?

A: That's almost impossible to say. You could talk about that in the strategic realm, perhaps, but in terms of the United States writ large, let's take an example -- the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy is clearly able to project power around the world and does so on an ongoing basis -- putting an aircraft carrier, for example, in the Persian Gulf to project power during Operation Iraqi Freedom. But it's also there, along with the Coast Guard, to essentially make sure that we're protected against anything that could be launched against the United States from a ship off its coast. Is what you invest in the Navy offense or defense? It's just not easy to say. In fact, I would say it's impossible.

Q: If President Obama suddenly decided you were going to be his expert adviser on defense and he says you get to make one or two things to happen, what would they be?

A: I'd put one in the budget area and one in the strategic area. The one in the budget area is the 4 percent benchmark. We can afford and we will get a very good military capability that I would support the sustained national security needs of the United States -- unless there is something even more dramatic in terms of our economy than we have now; if we have another Great Depression then maybe you're talking about something different. By and large, even with today's economic difficulties 4 percent ought to be the guideline. That's what I would say budgetarily.

The second would be on the strategic side. I'd say let's get away from retaliation-based deterrence, which may not be as effective as it was against the Soviet Union when you're talking about countries like Iran and North Korea. And let's go to one that's really dedicated to protecting and defending the territory, people, institutions and infrastructure of the United States. Does that mean it's all exclusively defensive systems in the tactical sense of that word? No. It'll be a mix of offensive and defensive capabilities to hold the targets at risk that could be used to attack the United States at a strategic level or to launch attacks against U.S. friends and allies at a strategic level. That protect-and-defend strategy ought to be at the core of our requirements and we ought to modernize those strategic forces, offensive and defensive, conventional and nuclear, to meet the requirements of that protect-and-defend strategy.

Q: When you look at our defense situation, what stands out as the most glaring problem?

A: The problem that I would have to come back to is at a strategic level. It would go to areas beyond ballistic missile defense. We are not well-positioned to operate militarily against an increasingly competitive political environment regarding our space-based systems and space operations. We really need to beef that stuff up -- and that includes for boost-phase missile defense. If you want a really good defense that is going to defend the American people and U.S. friends and allies against the kinds of missiles that Iran is clearly moving toward with the demonstration of its satellite launch, you're going to want to have that boost-phase defense capability in space.

Q: And "boost-phase" means what?

A: Boost-phase means destroying ballistic missiles in the earliest stages of flight when they are still under the power of their rocket motors.

If you intercept them at that point the bad stuff will fall back on the guy that launched it. The second thing that is important about that is that you will destroy the missile before it releases countermeasures, decoys, chaff and other things that are designed to confuse or overwhelm the defense in later stages in later stages. That's not saying you shouldn't do the later stages. You need a layered defense concept that will destroy ballistic missiles' boost, mid-course and terminal phase. But the one where we're really not being anywhere near as aggressive as we should be is regarding the space-based capabilities performing boost-phase intercepts.

Q: Do you think that Obama has defense people around him who will do the right thing?

A: Yes and no. Clearly he could have done worse than holding Defense Secretary Robert Gates over. I think he's got some people I consider I could work with in some of the senior DOD positions. I would say that I am a little bit more skeptical about the people who are going into the State department, particularly in my field, which would be on the arms-control side. So you get a mixed bag.

I'm at least as much concerned about the configuration of Congress regarding defense and national security issues as I am with the Obama administration. Actually, what would concern me in the greater scheme of things is that the Obama administration is operating in this context of a Congress that I think is unfortunately rather hostile, as I see it, on a significant number of defense and national security issues.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..