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Friday, August 21, 2009

Wasteful military spending

Delta House Missile Defense
Volume XIV No. 34: August 21, 2009

Faced with proposed budgetary terminations, in a move that would make Bluto and his Animal House fraternity brothers proud, missile defense program boosters threw a big ‘ol party this week.

Okay, so they weren’t wearing togas, but military brass, scientists, and academics descended by the hundreds on Huntsville, Alabama, for the annual Space and Missile Defense Conference. As the home of the Army Space and Missile Command, Missile and Space Intelligence Center, and scores of related government agencies and defense contractors, Huntsville is the perfect venue for what amounts to a pep rally (trade show) for our country’s most expensive weapons systems.

The event was well-timed to remind Congressional Appropriators that decisions about missile defense funding await them after the August recess when they take up the fiscal year 2010 Defense Appropriations bill. Specifically, they must decide whether to defy the White House and reinstate funding for programs shrunk by the Pentagon—including the Airborne Laser and Ground-Based Missile Defense—or terminated outright, such as the Multiple-Kill Vehicle and Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha has already spared KEI the knife, giving the program based in his home district $80 million in the House version of the bill.

In another example of fortuitous timing, the Missile Defense Agency reported Wednesday a successful test of the Airborne Laser, a Boeing creation that would shoot ballistic missiles out of the sky with a laser mounted on the nose of a 747 aircraft. MDA had conducted a similar test the previous week, and will attempt to actually shoot down a missile by the end of the year.

But even if the system passes that test, the fact is the laser is still too weak to allow the large planes to shoot down missiles from a safe distance. The planes would have to practically hover above their targets in order to destroy them—hardly an invulnerable position. Defense Secretary Gates said as much when he testified before the House Armed Services Committee in May. “There’s nobody in uniform I know who thinks this is a workable concept,” he said.

The Defense Department has in fact budgeted plenty of money for continued development of directed-energy lasers and weapons—just not ones mounted on aircraft that invite enemy target practice. Yet in Huntsville this week, the ABL seemed the belle of the ball: TV cameras lingered over models of laser-packin’ 747s that, according to the DOD budget, will never be built.

Meanwhile, Huntsville’s Representative Parker Griffith (D-AL) hit the dance floor to defend the wasteful weapons. "Did we make a policy decision and then place a budget? Or did we make a budget decision and then develop a policy?" he asked Thursday afternoon during a presentation titled “The Politics of Missile Defense and the Adversarial Influences.” "It should not have been a budget issue. The defense of the United States is going to be expensive," he said. Too late. It already is expensive – as Secretary Gates has pointed out. We should be able to defend our country on the more than half a trillion dollars we are currently spending.

We surely agree that strategy and security should guide defense spending before parochial concerns about jobs, votes, and dollars. But military leaders, scientists and the preponderance of evidence agree that missile defense programs like the Airborne Laser have failed on that score, and other investments—including many other missile defense programs—are more deserving of our limited dollars. The party has to end some time and we have to make tough budgetary choices. The easiest choice should be to spend our precious cash on defense programs that will actually work.

Let us know what you think.

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