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Congress Returns To Face Funding Decisions On ABL, Euro BMD

By | September 10, 2007

      Lawmakers are facing tough decisions on whether to proceed with pending proposals to cut vital funding for the Airborne Laser (ABL) program and the planned European ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, as Congress returns from its summer vacation.

      In each case, funding cuts could have major negative impacts on those programs.

      With ABL, legislators are confronted with a BMD development program that in recent years has met targets and achieved goals, with new technology being developed on schedule and the system passing repeated tests.

      For example, the ABL system recently completed a successful test of the beam control/fire control system. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

      Led by The Boeing Co. [BA], which also contributed the heavily-modified Boeing 747 aircraft, the ABL program uses lasers by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and a beam control/fire control system by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] to take out enemy ballistic missiles.

      ABL does so at the best possible time, just after the enemy weapon launches, before it has time to spray out multiple warheads, confusing decoys or chaff.

      Supporters of the program note that North Korea and Iran both are developing increasingly longer-range missiles, and each nation has a nuclear development program. North Korea also has detonated a nuclear weapon in an underground test.

      Further, China has amassed some 900 radar-guided missiles aimed at Taiwan, an island nation that China vows to invade if it doesn’t capitulate and submit to rule by Beijing.

      China also is developing new, longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching any point in the United States, and it is procuring nuclear-powered submarines with missile-firing capabilities.

      Backers of the ABL program say it is irrational, in the face of such threats, to slow the ABL program.

      But that is precisely what would occur if Congress slashes funds, according to Boeing.

      At one point, a House panel would have cut ABL funding for the fiscal year 2008, beginning in three weeks, to just $149 million, from the $549 million that President Bush requested.

      While others Congress would whack less out of the program, providing it with as much as $499 million in fiscal 2008, that still would cause a drastic slowdown in the ABL program, delaying it by as much as two years, according to Boeing.

      If the program remains on track, work with the high-powered laser would be undertaken next year, and then there would be a test in 2009 in which the ABL would shoot down a target missile in flight.

      The ABL kills an enemy weapon by firing a high-powered laser at the missile to sear a hole in its side, and by frying its electronics, shortly after the missile lifts off from a launch pad or silo.

      In contrast, most other BMD systems use interceptor missiles to smash into and destroy the enemy weapon in its midcourse or terminal phase, much closer to the target.

      Those lawmakers arguing for cuts in ABL funding argue that the laser still is in development and involves new technology, saying the money should be diverted to other BMD programs with more advanced, demonstrated technology.

      European BMD

      Another BMD program imperiled by proposed budget cuts is the European "third site" for a Ground-based Midcourse missile Defense (GMD) installation.

      GMD sites now are in Alaska and California.

      Some lawmakers would make a partial cut in funding for the program, while others would eliminate all funding for installation of silos filled with interceptors in Poland.

      Each budget proposal would, however, provide some amount of money for installation of a high-capability radar in the Czech Republic.

      Backers of the program say the funding cuts at this juncture are perverse, given the threat posed by potential missile launches from rogue Middle Eastern nations such as Iran.

      While Iran is processing nuclear materials in what it says is fuel development for a peaceful nuclear generating program, Western powers fear Iran — a nation with leaders vowing to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth — is producing the makings of nuclear weapons.

      Iran also has fired a missile from a submerged submarine.

      ABL proponents, including Bush and Pentagon leaders, argue that it is critical to form a shield against Iranian ballistic missiles, to protect European nations, U.S. troops stationed there, and the United States.

      Further, backers of the European BMD site argue that by cutting funds, Congress would be undercutting U.S. negotiators who are attempting to persuade the Czech Republic and Poland to authorize the installations.

      Proponents of the cuts, however, argue that perhaps the missile defense mission for Europe could be performed just as well by, say, U.S. Navy ships equipped with the Aegis weapon control air defense system.

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