Obering Warns Any Funding Hiatus Would Cause Years Of BMD Delay
Any move by Congress to suspend funding for a ballistic missile defense program such as the Airborne Laser (ABL) would cause a multi-years delay in fielding the capability, Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director, cautioned.
ABL is just now hitting its stride, with multiple advancements showing the program is on course, Obering said. The general spoke with reporters, and also testified before lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
He also cautioned members of the Senate Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee that cuts to BMD programs would make no sense, given that threats posed by ballistic missiles wielded by rogue nations have increased, and will continue to worsen.
“Ballistic missile threats are real and growing,” he told the subcommittee. “Now is not the time to cut back” on funding for BMD programs, a move that could cause serious delays in erecting a workable anti-missile shield to protect the United States, its forces and allied nations.
“The threat we face from ballistic missiles [in enemy hands] is real and growing,” he said.
If any program were to be denied funds for just one given year, such as the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, MDA couldn’t expect to continue the program in the following year, even if full funding were provided in fiscal 2009, Obering said.
Rather, during the year in which no funding was provided, there would be a devastating movement of key trained personnel out of the temporarily unfunded program into other areas, or into unemployment lines in mass layoffs, he said.
That would involve workers not only for prime contractors, but also for second-tier leading participants, on down through subcontractors and suppliers, he explained.
“If we have to stop a program, you just don’t restart the program the next year,” he said, “because typically contractors can’t afford to keep people on the payroll without their being funded to do something. So they’re typically dispersed to other programs, or they’re laid off.”
At that point, he added, “you may not be able to get those folks back again, depending on what program they’re tied up with at that point. And as we all know, there are certain key people, key individuals for any program that if you lose them, you may not be able to” get them back into a program that temporarily was unfunded.
The disruption can ripple out, through the prime contractor and on down the supply chain, and “reverberate all the way through the vendor base, because there are suppliers and sub-suppliers to that,” he said.
Obering warned that funding for major BMD programs is “not something you can turn on and turn off.”
Instead, a one-year funding gap can delay a program for two or more years.
He also noted that ABL has seen great progress in the past year or so.
ABL involves a heavily-modified Boeing 747 with a laser that can destroy an enemy missile shortly after it lifts off from a launch pad or silo, before it can spew out multiple warheads or chaff. ABL involves The Boeing Co. [BA] leading the program, Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] supplying the laser, and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] supplying the beam control/fire control system.
Obering noted that “they are making great strides” in developing the ABL system, with tests of the tracking laser that locates the target missile, of the atmospheric compensation laser that calculates how much the atmosphere will distort laser fire, and firing of the high-energy laser that actually kills the enemy missile. “They fired the high energy laser over 70 times in a Boeing 747 mockup,” he said. To be sure, he added, “it is tough, technical work,” and it is true that “that is not to say we’re out of the woods” yet in developing ABL. It soon will be apparent whether the tracking and beam illuminator (atmospheric compensation) lasers work well, he said.
This is leading up to a 2009 ABL attempt to shoot down a target missile.
However, some senators criticized ongoing BMD programs.
For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said that previous tests of some BMD systems “have not been very successful.”
She also said tests haven’t been realistic because they haven’t involved countermeasures, and also the tests have been “highly structured just to hit the mark,” rather than to simulate an actual missile attack.
Obering acknowledged that in 2004 and 2005 there were some test failures, but more recently there have been many successes.
Further, he said each test has involved a threat-representative target missile.
And in launching targets from California, that can realistically simulate launches of missiles from North Korea, he said. While it is true that warfighters operating test interceptors may know in advance the approximate azimuth of the target missile flight, that isn’t unrealistic, because they also would know the rough azimuth of a hostile missile launched from North Korea.
Finally, “Just because you do not have countermeasures does not mean [a test is] not realistic,” Obering said.
When Feinstein asked what nations other than Russia and China pose a realistic missile threat, Obering emphasized that U.S. BMD systems aren’t designed to counter the massed might of those nations, but instead are to take down missiles from North Korea and Iran.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) also questioned whether U.S. BMD systems, even if they work well, could be overwhelmed by a massive enemy ballistic missile attack.
On another issue, Obering said he is working to gain support for the proposed European-based BMD installation.
To protect Europe from any missiles that might be fired by rogue Middle Eastern nations such as Iran, the European BMD asset would be an extension of the ground-based missile defense (GMD) system, now in Ft. Greeley, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to a third collective site in the Czech Republic (radar) and Poland (missile interceptors in silos).
Obering said he is embarking on a mission to show the European leadership and public why they need a European-based BMD installation.
The presentation will spell out in understandable terms just what would happen if the European BMD capability were installed in the Czech Republic and Poland, and perhaps more importantly what would happen if it were not installed, Obering told funds-controlling lawmakers.
For example, what if an Iranian missile isn’t aimed at Europe, but it malfunctions and falls on a European nation nonetheless? he asked later. A missile that Iran aimed at the United States might instead fall on European soil.
Even before the pro-BMD presentations, “we are now getting unanimity in the NATO Council” that there is a need to move ahead with the ground-based missile defense installation, and that there is clearly a threat facing Europe from Iranian ballistic missiles.
“We are working with those governments,” Obering said.
Even a brief delay in funding the European BMD system could leave the United States two to four years behind in program execution, just as Iran is moving rapidly to develop long-range missile technologies, Obering warned. He noted that there is no time to lose, because experts estimate Iran will develop significant missile capabilities in the 2010 to 2015 time frame.
His comments came as some congressional watchers expect Democratic lawmakers to cut $310 million from the federal budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, funds that would pay for a beginning of the European BMD program.
Iran also is flouting global leaders by continuing to produce nuclear materials that it claims are for peaceful electrical generating purposes, while military analysts say Iran is moving to produce nuclear weapons.
If, however, the United States fields a workable, operational ballistic missile shield, rogue nations “realize they can be destroyed,” and any missiles they launch “can be countered,” Obering observed.
On yet another point, Obering defended MDA using funds with looser oversight restrictions, rather than conventional budget funds with significant rules and restrictions. He said the current MDA budget system has permitted the agency to shave years off development of missile defense systems, saving enough money to buy extra interceptor missiles.
While some lawmakers would like to end that MDA budget process, “rolling back this flexibility” would be a major misstep, Obering said.