If Congress doesn't set its defense priorities clearly, there is a risk that the the budget cutting super-committee will slash military spending in a way that will hamper our ability to defend against real and near-term threats to the United States, our allies, and interests. Tasked with proposing a plan to cut more than $1 trillion over ten years by a Thanksgiving deadline, the Joint Select Committee on Budget Reduction should look to a key Senate committee's guidance on how to responsibly reduce military spending.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, in a unanimous bi-partisan vote, has proposed a sensible approach that should be used as a model for maintaining a strong defense in this time of austere budgets. The plan reigns in long-term spending on a wish-list item, a yet-to-be-developed missile system, while redirecting a portion of the savings to fund an adequate supply of proven missiles that defend against the most immediate threats facing the country.
The Senate committee is seeking to achieve cost savings by zeroing out funding for the pie-in-the-sky Standard Missile Block II-B, while redirecting a portion of the savings to invest in supplying the military with the IB and IIA generation ship-based Standard Missile 3 (SM 3) systems needed right now. In a speech at the George C. Marshall Institute, Rear Admiral Alan Hicks, noted that the SM 3 "Inventory is inadequate to meet our needs."
These systems, already under development, are the first line of defense against short and intermediate range airborne attacks. They work by stopping enemy missiles in space. While the notion of hitting a bullet with a bullet sounds far-fetched, the currently deployed SM 3 variant favored by key senators has been effective in tests, even exceeding expectations in the most challenging test to date this spring. Expected to intercept only short-range missiles, the S-3 IA succeeded in knocking out an intermediate range missile in tests over the Pacific.
In a report released September 15th, the Senate committee highlighted the rationale for their move, explaining that "near-term requirements are under-appreciated in order to fund uncertain long-term efforts."
Today's SM 3s, a key element of the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile System, are exactly the programs championed by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a statement he made before retiring. Addressing the need to protect the country while facing budget cuts, he cited the need to increase investments "in proven capabilities most relevant both to the current wars and to the most likely and lethal future threats." The most likely —and lethal— future threats come from Iran and North Korea.
As U.S. troops pull out of Iraq, the most immediate threats are from Iran and North Korea. Strategic experts are concerned that the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq will further entice Iran to continue its belligerent behavior, with an eye towards filling the power vacuum in Iraq. Recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen addressed the threat of Iran during a visit to Israel this summer. According to the Jerusalem Post, Mullen "pointed to US efforts to create a missile defense architecture in Eastern Europe to defend against Iranian capabilities, which he said Tehran has invested in increasing."
Iran's recent bizarre plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil should be reminder enough of the Iranian government's provocative nature, and willingness to act on it.
In addition, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reported to Congress in February that North Korea's nuclear and missile weapons programs are a threat to the United States by threatening our allies in the region. He further warned that North Korea is arming Iran and Syria with ballistic missiles. North Korea's ballistic missile threat is real, destabilizing, and is not going away anytime soon.
The need for immediate and adequate supply of SM 3s is clear. Iran, in fact, may have a long-range missile which could threaten the Eastern U.S by 2015. As The Heritage Foundation's National Security Policy fellow, Baker Spring pointed out in a September report, "Given the current timeline for development of the Block II-B interceptor, it is necessary to consider available options for developing and deploying Block I-B and Block II-A versions of the Standard Missile-3 interceptor in a manner" that will allow us to counter this threat.
The House should take note of the Senate Appropriations Committee's responsible bi-partisan approach and adopt it when negotiators merge the House and Senate defense spending bills later this year. This would cut spending, while still providing for critical defenses to immediate and near-term threats, by deploying more SM-3 IA's while continuing work on even newer generation missiles already in development.