Aviation Week reports that Senate defense appropriators--from both sides of the political aisle--gave a favorable reception to missile defense budget proposals for 2009.
During a hearing held yesterday, the chairman of the defense appropriations sub-committee, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, said that "missile defense had a good year in 2007." He was referring to a series of successful operational tests and the continued deployment of systems like the Navy SM-3 missile, used to knock down a defunct spy satellite two months ago.
However, Inouye also cautioned that Congress needs to become better informed on how the Missile Defense Agency, responsible for most of the nation's missile defense efforts, does business:
“Admittedly, we know very little about what is happening in your agency, yet we know in our guts that it’s very important, because you’re dealing with the most, potentially, dangerous areas,” Defense spending subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said.
“Sir, we would welcome that,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, who is set to retire this fall, told Inouye about the April 30 closed hearing.
That upcoming session is aimed at educating other lawmakers on pending missile defense projects, including the so-called "Third Site" in eastern Europe. At their recent summit meeting, NATO leaders expressed strong support for the planned deployment, which will consist of a missile-tracking radar in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles based in Poland.
The sub-committee's ranking Republican, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, also endorsed missile defense efforts, noting the threat posed by Iran and North Korea.
“In the face of these realities, it is imperative that we provide the Department of Defense – and the Missile Defense Agency in particular – the resources necessary for the defense of our country and our interests against these threats.”
While the support of Senators Inouye and Cochran is certainly welcome, missile defense program still face an uphill battle in key Congressional circles. Michigan's Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, remains a vocal critic of missile defense and some House Democrats are considering an effort to defund those programs. From a recent edition of the left-wing Washington Independent:
In the House Rayburn Building Wednesday afternoon, three physicists were patiently explaining to members of Congress that the U.S. missile defense system has little practical worth.
"If Iran were reckless enough to attack Europe or the United States," said Phillip E. Coyle, senior adviser at the World Security Institute, a national-security study center, "current U.S. missile defense would not be effective."
The hearing, held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, came a month after national security experts told the panel that missile defense draws resources away from the more pressing threat posed by Al Qaeda. The subcommittee chairman, John Tierney (D-Mass.), now plans a third hearing, on a date to be announced, where Pentagon officials will have the opportunity to defend the anti-ballistic missile program.
Congress's oversight is perhaps the first serious challenge to a remarkably enduring defense program. As much as $150 billion has been spent since President Ronald Reagan first launched the strategic defense initiative, or "Star Wars," in 1983. Since then, the quest to develop radar so sophisticated that it could detect and shoot down a nuclear warhead in outer space has taken on a life of its own. But the scrutiny indicates that Congress may break an old habit and finally stop funding the nation's pursuit of missile defense.
We are not on the same page with this administration," said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Task Force on Terrorism and Proliferation Financing, which is seeking to re-direct Pentagon money to counterterrorism programs. "It's alarming they want to go full speed ahead with another program."
At this point, Democrats don't have enough votes to completely defund missile defense. But, as we've noted in previous posts, they could target individual programs, including the Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL). The high-power laser, mounted on a Boeing 747, is designed to destroy missiles in their boost phase.
But the system is still in its developmental stage, and faces strong opposition from opponents of missile defense. Past Democratic proposals have called for major reductions in the ABL program, or its outright cancellation.