Gates defends U.S. missile defense cuts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday defended cuts to U.S. missile defense programs, saying Washington would still invest in boosting defenses against long-range missile threats, like those posed by North Korea and Iran.

Gates told a House of Representatives subcommittee that the United States had made “great technological progress on missile defense” in the last two decades, but it was vital to strike a balance between research and development of new programs and procurement.

He said the Pentagon had enough money from its fiscal 2009 budget to start building missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland if those countries approve and the Obama administration decides to move ahead with the plans.

But he said the administration also had “great interest” in partnering with Russia on missile defense.

“The reality is that radars located in Russia supplementing those in the Czech Republic would give additional capability to the sites in Europe,” Gates told the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee.

Michele Flournoy, defense undersecretary for policy, told a defense writers breakfast the Pentagon was working on the issue with other federal agencies, Russia and the European partners, and hoped to reach a solution in the next months.

“We are also looking at the full range of technological solutions, are there better ways to do this, and importantly, can we do this in a cooperative manner with Russia,” she said.

The administration’s fiscal 2010 budget plan calls for termination of two missile defense programs and cut funding for the Missile Defense Agency by $1.2 billion.

The cuts have been questioned by lawmakers.

U.S. Representative Bill Young, a Florida Republican, questioned the timing of the missile defense cuts, particularly after Iran announced on Wednesday that it had tested a missile that analysts say could hit Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf.

Young also cited “continuing rhetoric about threats to our friends and allies in the region” from Tehran.

Representative Tom Price, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said Iran’s test of the surface-to-surface missile underscored the “very real danger of a hostile Iran.”

“A strong, strategic missile defense system will go a long way toward preventing a constant threat of attack by rogue nations,” he said in a statement.

Gates said the Pentagon would continue robustly to fund research on improving defenses against long-range missile threats, and had added funding to protect against shorter-range regional threats.

The budget added $700 million in funding for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp and the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) program run by Raytheon Co.

But he was sharply critical of several multibillion-dollar programs, including two aimed at destroying enemy missiles during the boost phase, soon after launch.

Northrop Grumman Corp’s Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a program once valued at $6 billion, was scrapped because it offered limited capability against threats from Iran, and virtually none against Russia or China, he said.

Gates said he also cut plans for a second Airborne Laser to be built by Boeing Co, given serious cost and technology issues. He said the chemical laser developed for the program would have to be 20 to 30 times bigger to be operationally useful, making its proposed role “highly questionable.”

Gates also canceled the Multiple Kill Vehicle built by Lockheed because it faced significant technical challenges.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa, editing by Matthew Lewis