Lawmakers, officials see cuts to U.S. missile defense

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers and top military officers on Monday predicted cuts in missile defense spending, now running at nearly $10 billion a year, and said the focus would shift increasingly to cooperative efforts with other nations and networking current weapons.

Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright testifies at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Capitol Hill in Washington September 23, 2008. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Marine Corps General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, underscored the importance of linking existing missile-warning systems, and said Washington could no longer afford weapons designed to address a single threat.

Cartwright told a missile defense conference the global economic crisis was forcing the Pentagon to make “hard choices” about which weapons programs to continue funding. A priority, he said, was to focus on sensors and command and control systems that made existing weapons systems more effective.

He gave no detailed forecasts for cuts to missile defense programs in the fiscal 2010 budget, but said the Obama administration was “going to put a stamp on this in 2010.” The government’s fiscal 2010 begins on October 1.

Riki Ellison, who heads the industry-supported Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said last month the White House asked the Pentagon to cut nearly $2 billion, or up to roughly 20 percent, from missile defense in its fiscal 2010 budget.

Given the budget crunch, Cartwright said the military services should stop jockeying for separate programs and funding, and the United States must work more closely with coalition partners.

“Would you buy, in tough economic times, something that does one thing well or something that does a hundred things well?” Cartwright said. The Missile Defense Agency must show it can link sensors “in a way that is going to fundamentally change how the department looks at war and how we buy our capability.”

The challenge for the United States in coming years would probably be new, unknown threats rather than the launching of ballistic missiles by enemy states, Cartwright said.

“Ballistic missiles are about as passe as email. Nobody does it anymore,” he said. “If you’re going to do something over the next couple of years to address the unknown, then my dollar is going to go toward sensor and command and control.”

Asked what that meant for Boeing Co’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program, Cartwright said its future hinged on whether it could also address other threats. “The more utility, the more willing you’re going to be to put money in it,” he told reporters.

Ellison said last month programs vulnerable to cuts or termination included Boeing’s Airborne Laser, a modified 747 being designed to zap ballistic missiles moments after liftoff; Lockheed Martin Corp’s Multiple Kill Vehicle; and the Space-Based Surveillance and Tracking System being developed by Northrop Grumman Corp and Raytheon Co.

“We have to pick our investments carefully. We can no longer build an airplane that has a beautiful radar in it that can handle an air-launched missile or a bomb, but dumps everything else over the side,” he said. “Can’t afford it.”

Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who heads the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Boeing Laser was $4 billion over budget, eight years behind schedule, and reminded her “of the definition of insanity.”

Boeing defended its ground-based missile defense program, and said continued progress could be jeopardized if funding was cut. “Inadequate funding could lead to a degradation of capability just as North Korea and Iran are stepping up their ballistic missile activities,” said spokesman Marc Selinger.

Boeing was working on future applications for the airborne laser, including defense against surface-to-air missiles, aircraft and possibly cruise missiles, Selinger said.

Seven lawmakers wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday and called the laser critical to national security, given the proliferation of 3,000 ballistic missiles around the world, outside those of Russia, China and U.S. allies.

Halting the program now would mean all the money spent so far would have been wasted, and the United States would lose the industrial base to produce speed-of-light defense, said Democrat Norm Dicks and six other lawmakers.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, editing by Matthew Lewis