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Expert Panel Shoots Straight on Missile Defense

Pete Sepp
September 24, 2012

As regular readers of “Government Bytes!” will remember, National Taxpayers Union has often contended that by spending smarter instead of just harder on ballistic missile defense programs, elected officials can protect the nation’s finances as well as its citizens. For example, we’ve been encouraging Congress to concentrate funding for the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) component of the Aegis defense platform on the “IB” and “IIA” variants rather than the somewhat tenuous “IIB” version. Our commentary appearing on The Hill’s Congress Blog earlier this month praised Senate Appropriators for doing just that:

Increases in overall missile defense spending notwithstanding, Senators were right to direct resources toward the next generation of SM-3, known as Block IB, instead of the more futuristic IIB version (which received a cut of $169 million). After a challenging first test in the development phase, Block IB has met with several successes, including two difficult intercepts this year. …Meanwhile, Block IIB remains an ambitious design that is confined more to the drawing board than the test range. … [A]ll Senators ought to agree upon setting budget priorities for systems that can maintain a predictable cost pattern between now and the end of the decade. On this score, SM-3 Block IB holds better promise than Block IIB.

Others share NTU’s opinion on this matter, from a similar fiscal standpoint. In April, six conservative organizations joined us on an NTU-led open letter to Congress that stated:

Over our organizations’ histories we have encountered projects throughout the armed services that promised massive technological advancements for warfighters, only to yield underwhelming   results, behind-schedule evolution, and overinflated price tags. … Highly risky ventures like Block IIB often take similar trajectories – all offer huge potential on paper, many are kept alive long after that potential fades, and few have fiscal outcomes that are acceptable to overburdened taxpayers.

Recently this stance received a vindication of sorts from a report authored by the National Research Council for the National Academy of Sciences entitled, “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives.”

Given the government’s penchant for studying problems rather than solving them, it is a miracle more American taxpayers aren’t injured from becoming entangled in all the blue ribbons shed from the multitude of commissions in Washington. But as The New York Times explained, the findings represent “the first time that the research council – an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, chartered by Congress to give scientific and technical advice to the government and considered the nation’s preeminent group of scientists – has weighed in on the nation’s overall plans for defeating missile attacks.” The 16-member panel included engineers, scientists, and other experts from think tanks, academic institutions, and the defense industry.

Their conclusion, laid out in more than 250 technical and jargon-filled pages, was that the current approach to missile defense needs an adjustment to stress “evolutionary” approaches using existing systems and practical, proven designs. Calling the recommendations “a major blow to President Obama’s strategy,” which NTU has also criticized, the Times reported that the panel is calling for a “stronger domestic system” of sensors and ground-based interceptors that would abandon step four of the current “Phased Adaptive Approach” (PAA). Although the National Research Council’s document is a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms, one section describes the panel’s conclusion in relatively simple terms:

Phase 4 of PAA … is an expensive solution for improving homeland defense yet limited in effectiveness. The committee’s analysis shows that notional interceptors with a fly-out velocity greater than 4.5km/sec benefit neither European defense nor other Aegis defense missions. Therefore, Phase 4 of PAA, which is the SM-3 Block IIB higher performance interceptor, has value only for an early shot opportunity for homeland defense, provided it has sufficient burnout velocity to preclude being overflown, but comes at a high acquisition and life-cycle cost. [The panel’s] alternative – an evolved GMD [Ground-Based Midcourse Defense] system – provides a more effective homeland defense solution and avoids any need for Phase 4 of PAA.

The Times noted that the report claims the National Research Council’s strategy “could fit within current antimissile spending – which runs about $10 billion a year – if the military eliminated what the panel describes as costly and unneeded systems.” Still, the report cites somewhat higher life-cycle costs with its plan, meaning that Congress would need to examine the details carefully to ensure that stewardship of tax dollars remained a top priority. Other offsetting reductions might be necessary. Despite these caveats, the bottom line is becoming more and more evident: a missile-defense plan that relies on maturing technologies like SM-3 Blocks IB and IIA is a better move than gambling on systems like IIB with less predictable cost and performance patterns. Now Congress needs to demonstrate it’s willing to learn from these findings rather than roll the dice with more tax dollars at stake.


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