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House Panel Eases Cuts, So Airborne Laser Damaged, Not Dead

By | May 14, 2007

      ABL Passes Another Test; Further Funds Restoration Sought

      House lawmakers provided a reprieve that averted death for the Airborne Laser (ABL) ballistic missile defense (BMD) program, while also lifting the ABL funding level high enough that other congressional committees may well move to provide adequate financing for the program.

      That was the view of a key lawmaker after the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) passed an authorization bill that would slash 45.5 percent of requested funding for the ABL program, and also would cut all $160 million requested for the potential European BMD program missile silos site in Poland. That was, however, better than the HASC strategic forces subcommittee, which would have ripped roughly three-fourths of the ABL money from the defense authorization bill. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, May 7, 2007, page 1.)

      Ironically, the HASC move to chop almost half the money from ABL came just as the program aced another test, the latest in a long list of successes for the program. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

      ABL is the primary boost-phase missile defense element, and is being developed to destroy ballistic missiles of all classes in their boost phase of flight using its megawatt- class high-energy laser.

      Killing an enemy missile just after launch, in its boost phase, means it has no chance to emit multiple warheads, chaff or decoys.

      A Close Call

      Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a leading defender of the ABL program on the HASC, said it was well the full committee provided a meager $299 million for ABL in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, because a pittance $149 million proposed by the HASC strategic forces subcommittee effectively would have killed the program.

      While he said the $299 million still leaves the ABL program badly damaged, losing 45.5 percent of the funds President Bush requested, that $150 million increase in ABL funds by the full committee nonetheless is greatly welcome, according to Franks.

      The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA) also lauded Tauscher for the bipartisan move to restore the funds to the ABL program, while also objecting that the money was obtained by taking it out of other missile defense programs.

      The $150 million ABL funds restoration is significant not only because it doubles the funding from the subcommittee proposal, but also because it leaves ABL at a much higher starting point in negotiations with the other key congressional committees: the Senate Armed Services Committee, the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, and in conference committees on the fiscal 2008 defense authorization and appropriations bills. Franks said this is a much better bargaining position.

      He attempted to restore even more funds to ABL, submitting an amendment to add another $100 million to the laser missile killer. But the HASC rejected that on a vote of 23 ayes, 35 nays.

      The ABL program is led by The Boeing Co. [BA], aided by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] supplying the laser and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] providing the beam control/fire control system.

      Franks expressed bafflement that anyone would wish to kill the ABL program at this point, given that $3 billion of taxpayers’ money and years of effort already have been invested in the laser defense system, and the program is now moving rapidly and passing tests, terming ABL “a most promising directed energy program.”

      But Tauscher said the ABL program, as it moves to develop further technology for the laser system, faces “significant challenges” that in past have “led to delays” and increased costs. She repeated criticisms that were expressed in a report on the ABL by a watchdog agency.

      Tauscher also complained that Franks would meet budget rules requiring offsets to any spending increases by, in part, removing funds from the Space Based Infrared System program, saying that would “poach” on the program, a satellite constellation to detect and track enemy missiles as they lift off and travel.

      Franks, however, noted that the funds for SBIRS High that he would shift weren’t requested by the Bush administration for the program.

      For its part, Boeing responded to the full committee action by lauding the $150 million restoration of the total $400 million that the subcommittee had cut. But even after that action, ABL still is left far short of the $549 million that Bush requested, the company noted.

      “We are very grateful that the full House Armed Services Committee restored some of the money cut from the Airborne Laser program,” Boeing said in a statement. However, the full committee “bill still reduces the president’s budget request for this vital capability by almost half.”

      And that would have a serious impact. “A reduction of that magnitude would have a significant impact on the program,” Boeing noted. Therefore, “We will continue to work with Congress and MDA to achieve full funding for ABL in” the next fiscal year.

      Franks noted that some Democratic lawmakers are taking a budget knife to BMD programs that haven’t completed development and entered production and construction. Other, more established programs such as the Aegis BMD system actually saw funding increases.

      In all, the strategic forces subcommittee tore $764 million from the total $8.9 billion for missile defense programs, and the HASC endorsed that, rejecting a Franks amendment to restore the full $764 million on a committee vote of 24 ayes, 34 nays.

      Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the ranking HASC Republican and former chairman of the HASC, proposed an amendment to make it a sense of the Congress that lawmakers’ policy is to favor formation of BMD systems capable of killing enemy missiles not only in their midcourse or terminal phases of trajectory, but also in their boost phases.

      But on a largely party-line vote, Democrats instead backed a substitute by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), who chairs the subcommittee, which instead made only a vague reference to a need for a “layered” missile defense strategy, without specifying that U.S. BMD systems should include a boost phase capability, such as ABL.

      The only other boost phase program is the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), which uses a friendly missile to hit the enemy missile at a specific point in space and time, as do the midcourse and terminal phase BMD programs.

      Franks also lost a bid to add $10 million back to the Space Test Bed program, on a vote of 24 ayes, 34 nays.

      And Rep. William Thornberry (R-Texas) lost a bid to add $100 million to the Navstar Global Positioning System III, or GPS III, program on a vote of 26 ayes, 32 nays.

      Other Amendments Approved

      In other amendments that Tauscher offered to the proposals by her strategic forces subcommittee, the HASC approved:

      • A $38 million increase to the Multiple Kill Vehicle program in MDA.

      • Another $10 million for the Space Tracking and Surveillance System to buy an added target that will be tracked by the system satellites.

      • A $12 million increase for the BMD signal processor, which will aid discrimination capabilities in the Aegis system.

      But the Tauscher amendments also cut funding for some missile defense programs:

      • The KEI program would be whacked by $50 million, but that still permits a booster test next year.

      • MDA special programs would be cut another $120 million.

      • BMD sensors would be cut by another $40 million.

      The full HASC also moved to soften, slightly, the subcommittee decision to take all $160 million that Bush requested for initial work toward a BMD interceptor silos site in Poland as part of a European missile defense system. That left only $150 million toward a radar installation in the Czech Republic. MDAA also praised the softening language.

      The HASC adopted that softening stance in an amendment by Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) that says if the Bush administration reaches agreements with host nations and NATO to build the European missile defense system, then the Department of Defense (DOD) “has the option of submitting a reprogramming request to Congress in fiscal year 2008 to fund site preparation activities.” In other words, the Pentagon could shuffle funds among accounts to provide the funds, if lawmakers approved.

      Another amendment, from Everett and Tauscher, directed Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to provide a greater priority to protection of national security space systems.

      That amendment came after China early this year used a missile to intercept and demolish one of its own aging weather satellites in orbit, raising concerns that China now can, at will, demolish U.S. military and civilian space assets. China also “painted” a U.S. military satellite with a ground-based laser.

      Under the amendment, the DOD should identify threats to and vulnerabilities of the national security space system. Periodic reports to Congress would be required.

      The HASC also rejected on a voice vote an attempt by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) to chop $175.4 million out of a swift response program to convert some Navy submarines that can shoot Trident nuclear-weapon missiles, and instead have them fire conventional-warhead missiles. The idea is to hit any target on Earth in an hour or less.

      Tauscher, the leader of his own party on the subcommittee, opposed his amendment, but offered to work with him to craft some acceptable response to Sestak’s concern that missiles being fired from Trident subs could be mistaken by other nations for the opening of a nuclear attack. And Everett, the ranking Republican, also said he opposed the amendment. But Sestak forged ahead, seeking a vote, and it was rejected.

      Committee Provisions

      The committee also adopted language affecting many missile program areas.

      For example, the HASC provided that the Department of Defense director of operational test and evaluation should have the power to witness any ballistic missile tests that MDA conducts, and the director also gains access to MDA “information.”

      Another provision says the Missile Defense Agency can use funds, with approval of the secretary of defense, for developing and fielding BMD capabilities, but can’t use funds for operations and support.

      As well, the measure calls for a study on the structure of the MDA and its relationship to other agencies, and also whether MDA should continue in its present form, or should shift from missile defense R&D to focusing on combat support, or whether MDA should be abolished and its mission assumed by the U.S. Strategic Command and its departments.

      The measure also extends for two years the mandate for comptroller general assessments of missile defense programs.

      And the bill requires a secretary of defense study by a federally funded research center of the proposal to create the European ballistic missile defense system, with the $1 million study to then be provided to the secretary and key congressional committees.

      That study should assess technical capabilities of the U.S. ground based midcourse missile defense system (or GMD, now in Alaska and California) in the European setting, as to how effectively that installation would protect forward-deployed radars, Europe and the United States. That assessment would include a judgment of the political, operational, force structure and budgetary implications of such a deployment on the United States, NATO “and other interested parties.”

      Also, there would have to be an analysis of alternatives, as to what other systems might be able to provide (in whole or in part) missile defense for Europe in place of the GMD system, including a range of alternative missile defense systems that are available or are expected to be by 2020.

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