Washington's defense gap: Missile funding

Salena Zito
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Posted: Jun 14, 2009 12:00 AM

Missile defense has been a political issue since President Reagan introduced his plan to win the arms race by rebuilding our arsenal while using technology to prevent a successful Russian nuclear attack against us.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., dismissed Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as "Star Wars."

Yet Reagan appealed to Americans' common sense in a 1983 speech: "What if free people could live secure in the knowledge ... that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil?"

SDI is now the Ballistic Missile Defense program. Its mission is to defend our forces and allies against all ballistic missile threats, short- and long-range, according to Christopher Taylor of the Missile Defense Agency, part of the Defense Department.

As of week's end, the program's budget was set to be cut.

With the devotion of Iran's leaders to nuclear technology, with Pakistan's instability and North Korea's erratic behavior, clearly we should have a fully functional missile defense system, former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told the Trib, "not a budget cut."

In other words, right now is not really a good time to reduce monies on long-range missiles when we have long-range problems.

Last year, Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee, led by Strategic Forces subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California, considerably reduced missile defense funding: for fiscal year 2009, by roughly $500 million; for 2008, by more than $700 million.

In the 2010 budget, the Obama administration cut missile defense by $1.2 billion. According to Defense Department documentation, this program restructuring is intended to focus on rogue-state and theater missile threats.

As a general rule, liberal Democrats who control the federal purse believe the only near-term threat comes from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

The Obama administration believes a Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) is sufficient to address rogue-nation threats -- although it is reducing deployment of interceptors (from a planned 44 to 30), halting construction of a missile field in Alaska and curtailing further development.

The administration also has canceled several "future capability" programs due to technical challenges, affordability and a belief that these are too futuristic. It emphasizes a shift from midcourse and boost-phase missile defense to "ascent-phase" capabilities, without much explanation of what "ascent-phase" includes.

Republicans and hawkish Democrats are trying to restore some funding, but strident liberal opposition might make that impossible.

Republicans support increased funding for theater missile defense to protect our troops and allies from shorter-range missiles. Yet with a $1.2 billion funding cut, they face trading national missile defense for more theater missile defense.

The Obama White House and congressional Democrats would argue that a short-range "theater" missile defense system is sufficient to counter current threats. Using their rationale, the United States would not need a multi-layered, comprehensive missile defense system because rogue nations do not have the capability to hit our homeland.

However, this approach is dangerous and naive. North Korea and Iran both recently tested multi-stage, long-range ballistic missiles under the guise of peaceful "space" programs.

With those nations aggressively developing more capable ballistic missiles, it is unwise for the United States to unilaterally stop investing in what Democrats would describe as "longer-term" capabilities.

Democrats, however, push back on North Korea's rhetoric. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, recently dismissed the threat, telling Politico: "It is North Korea, after all."

Sometimes it is just hard to tell the difference between arrogance and ignorance.

Supporting the ideals behind war is never patriotic -- just politics. Supporting national defense is patriotic -- and should never be political.