U.S. missile defense to complete test review by May

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After years of criticism that it was spending billions on an anti-missile defense system without adequate testing, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency on Wednesday said it had launched a comprehensive review of its testing plans and would complete it by May 2009.

Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, who took over as director of the Pentagon agency in November, told lawmakers he thought it was important to carefully map out a long-term plan for testing the various weapons involved in missile defense, rather than just providing those details on a two-year basis.

“We’re working with the operational test communities -- not just MDA, but the independent reviewers -- to put together a comprehensive testing program that does convince everyone of (the) capabilities and limitations of these missile defense systems,” O’Reilly said after a hearing of the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

He said the review had already revealed some shortcomings, not just in the testing plans, but also in the modeling and simulation needed for the various weapons programs.

“We’ve learned a lot from this process,” O’Reilly said.

O’Reilly declined comment on reports that the Obama administration planned to cut missile defense spending in the fiscal 2010 budget by about $2 billion from $9.4 billion in 2009 and said discussions were still under way in the Pentagon.

Asked about the impact of such a large cut on the goals of the missile defense program, O’Reilly told reporters much would depend on whether the cuts were aimed at one specific program or across the board.

The Obama administration is due to unveil a broad plan for its 2010 budget on Thursday, including $537 billion for defense, excluding war spending. But details for specific Pentagon programs are not expected until March or April.

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Tauscher this week urged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to focus missile defense spending on theater systems such as Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, both built by Lockheed Martin Corp, and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile program run by Raytheon Co and Lockheed.

Tauscher told Gates in a letter that beefing up spending on theater missile defense systems should be the department’s highest missile defense priority given growing concerns about short- and medium-range ballistic missile attacks.

Republican lawmakers underscored the importance of the missile defense program in their questions at the hearing, focusing heavily on the long-range missile defense program run by Boeing Co, also seen as vulnerable to spending cuts.

Representative Ellen Tauscher, who heads the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, praised O’Reilly for being responsive to her questions, and welcomed his three-phase review of missile defense testing.

O’Reilly also won kudos from Charles McQueary, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, whose agency has repeatedly underscored the need for more testing data, especially about the ground-based midcourse system.

McQueary said he had been working closely with MDA on its three-phased review of the overall testing plans.

“I applaud General O’Reilly’s obvious personal commitment to this initiative,” McQueary told the subcommittee.

McQueary said the agency was making steady progress in acquiring, testing and fielding elements of the missile defense system.

But he said it was still using unaccredited models in its ground testing program, it needed to use more simulations and models, and it continued to face problems with its targets.

“Target limitations of both availability and performance attributes continue to impact both the pace and the productivity of MDA flight testing,” he said in remarks prepared for the hearing. “Even with the MDA’s target program improvements, there is significant risk in this area.”

Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit watchdog group, said O’Reilly was clearly taking “a more realistic approach” than his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, who he said had become more of a “salesman” for the missile defense program.

One Democratic congressional aide said O’Reilly was “sending very strong signals to the Hill that he’s a conscientious head of the Missile Defense Agency who’s ... not trying to promote programs without rigorous testing.”

Representative Michael Turner, the top Republican on the subcommittee, said he worried that testing was always the first thing to be cut when programs were targeted, but said he would work with Tauscher to ensure testing continued.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Gary Hill