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Democrats Likely To Criticize, But Not Slash, Most Missile Defense Programs

By | November 13, 2006

      Democrats taking control of Congress by a narrow margin are likely to criticize ballistic missile defense programs, but won’t kill the plan to erect a multi-layered shield against enemy missiles.

      And the ouster of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a leader committed to anti-missile programs, isn’t likely to signal a major reduction in Bush administration support for missile defense and other military acquisition programs.

      However, with Democrats in charge, there likely will be greater questioning and oversight of ballistic missile defense programs, and possible elimination of some programs that haven’t performed successfully in tests.

      For example, with Democrats taking control of the Senate by the slimmest possible margin, 51 to 49 seats, the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee will be taken by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), succeeding Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).

      Levin has criticized ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs, asking why there must be so many of them; saying that testing of BMD systems often hasn’t been realistic; pointing out that the ground-based ballistic missile defense system has failed in some tests; and arguing that intelligence agencies consider it more likely that rogue states or terrorists would smuggle nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons (WMD) into the United States rather than attempting to deliver WMD atop ballistic missiles.

      “Ballistic missile defense is one among many components of our overall defense effort. It needs to be evaluated in the context of the full spectrum of threats and risks to our security, and balanced against other defense priorities,” according to Levin.

      But Democrats in Congress aren’t likely to favor a wholesale elimination of BMD acquisition programs, even though such programs are expensive, costing tens of billions of dollars in coming years.

      While there “might be a token reduction in missile defense,” there will be no gigantic elimination of programs, according to Lawrence Korb, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress progressive think tank and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. “I really don’t see that happening,” Korb told defense journalists after the election.

      “I don’t think you’re going to see any wholesale changes in the baseline defense budget” in Congress, Korb said, while adding that Secretary of Defense-nominee Robert Gates may have a tough time coordinating the funding of acquisition programs that have doubled in total cost to $1.6 billion in the past five or six years, only partly because of new programs initiated.

      Some programs are being stretched out over more years, and the Air Force overall might receive a bit less money, but it is unlikely that there will be drastic cancellation of programs, given that many contracts already are signed and work is well underway, such as for the F-22A Raptor fighter aircraft, Korb said.

      Here are some reasons that could buttress his views:

      *While Democrats gained control of Congress, the White House, administration and Pentagon leadership still are under the control of Republican President Bush and (assuming Senate confirmation) his nominee to become secretary of defense, former CIA director Gates. Even as Bush replaced Rumsfeld, the president praised the departing Pentagon chief, saying, “He revitalized America’s efforts to develop and deploy ballistic missile defenses.” Gates has experience with countering enemy ballistic missile threats, having served in the Air Force Strategic Air Command.

      *It is the president and his Office of Management and Budget, not Congress, that writes the federal budget each year, and Congress approves almost all of what the president requests.

      *Levin and other Democrats gained control of Congress in part because many conservative-leaning Democratic candidates in the Nov. 7 general election drew votes from independents and Republicans. Now, Democrats will have to prove they are not soft on defense, as Republican candidates charged this year, because Democrats hope to capture the White House in the 2008 presidential election.

      *Moving away from the politics of missile defense, there is the much more commanding matter of need: can the United States and its interests, its armed forces at home and abroad, and its allies be left unprotected against attack by WMD-tipped enemy missiles, including short-, medium- and long-range weapons?

      *Even Levin expresses concern about short-range enemy missiles such as Scuds that might attack U.S. forces.

      *All members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, can’t ignore the reality that North Korea just this year fired a series of missiles (all but one shot successful), and detonated a nuclear weapon in an underground blast.

      *Another reality is that an increasingly belligerent Iran has fired a missile from a submerged submarine. Iranian leaders have criticized U.S. actions in Iraq, and also assailed European nations and Israel. Meanwhile, Iran is embarked upon a nuclear materials reprocessing program that Western nations fear will produce nuclear weapons.

      *China has some 800 radar-guided missiles aimed toward Taiwan, an island nation that China has vowed to invade unless Taipei capitulates and submits to rule by Beijing. Because many major existing U.S. weapons platforms aren’t radar-evading (such as many aircraft, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers), missile defense could be critical to any U.S. attempt to thwart a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

      *It is far more difficult for anyone, Democrat or Republican, to oppose programs once contracts are signed and work is underway. And that is the case with each of the BMD programs, which involve the largest and most influential companies in the defense industry. BMD programs include the Airborne Laser aircraft and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor that can hit an enemy missile early in its ballistic trajectory, before it has a chance to deploy multiple warheads or decoys. Other programs such as the Aegis-system-centered sea-based BMD system and the ground-based missile defense would attempt to hit enemy missiles later in their flight, in the midcourse or terminal phases of trajectory.

      *Major companies involved here include The Boeing Co. [BA], Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and Raytheon Co. [RTN], multi-billion-dollar companies with impressive clout in Washington. And these firms have a history of providing support through political campaign contributions to candidates of both parties.

      Turning to NASA and manned space programs, there again has been speculation that perhaps Democrats might not support space exploration and science efforts as well as Republicans. But here again, these assumptions merit a second look.

      Again, Bush still writes the federal budget, a document including his priorities. And the president has propounded a vision for manned space exploration including voyages to the moon, Mars and beyond.

      While Democrats could say they don’t share that vision, the American electorate is unlikely to endorse the United States ceding to foreigners the exploration of other heavenly bodies.

      The fact is, NASA space missions have inspired Americans, and given them a sense of pride.

      U.S. space exploration got its start under Democratic presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who backed the first manned missions to the moon.

      Further, while NASA has had some glitches in its programs, including the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew in 2003, NASA also has had some glittering successes that enthralled Americans, such as video shots of the Martian landscape taken by rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

      As well, NASA conducted a successful and heart-lifting launch of Space Shuttle Discovery amidst flag-draped Fourth of July celebrations, followed by an equally successful Space Shuttle Atlantis mission to resumeconstruction of the International Space Station (ISS).

      Can the U.S. government, regardless of which party leads it, afford to turn away from the ISS and partner space-station nations including Russia, and abandon the ISS? Hardly. And finishing construction of the artificial moon means supporting a grueling series of space shuttle launches at an average of about four per year if the ISS is to be completed by 2010, the year the shuttles are to be retired.

      Finally, there is the assumption that Democrats don’t support missile defense or space programs. But that is untrue. For example, one vigorous supporter of space programs, such as the mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, is Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who is in line to chair the critical Senate Appropriations Committee commerce, justice and science subcommittee. Her state includes NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

      The Center for American Progress said that Gates, as secretary of defense, will need to focus on “the pressing problems presented by North Korea, Iran and dangers of nuclear terrorism.”

      And the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, rather than reacting negatively, reached out to work in a bipartisan manner with the next House speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.)

      Moving from the political left to the right, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee that has jurisdiction over missile defense programs, praised Rumsfeld for having advanced establishment of a BMD shield.

      “One of his most significant accomplishments includes beginning the process to build America’s missile defense capabilities,” Hunter said.

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