Reprioritize U.S. Missile Defense Needs

In his 2013 defense budget proposal, U.S. President Barack Obama called for a $300 million reduction in spending toward one of our nation’s most ambitious national security assets: the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IB anti-ballistic missile.

Now, as the Senate Appropriations Committee nears consideration of the president’s budget, it becomes necessary that his proposed spending reductions be put into a clearer context. Namely, how can the government justify the dramatic reduction in procurement for a promising, increasingly validated weapon like the SM-3 Block IB missile while simultaneously throwing hundreds of millions of dollars toward an unproven, untested and largely theoretical missile defense concept like the SM-3 Block IIB? In short, it can’t.

They are both respective development stages within the president’s European Phased Adaptive Approach to implementing a missile defense system throughout Europe. The difference between the two iterations of the SM-3 is largely centered upon theory versus reality.

The SM-3 Block IB missile continues to prove its worth in repeated field tests while the SM-3 Block IIB remains in the conceptual stage. The IIB is intended to be a larger, faster interceptor that can defeat intermediate- and some intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. The IB is designed for short- to medium-range ballistic missiles.

The most optimistic projections put deployment of the IIB out to 2020.

Instability in strategic regions of the world, much of which centers on the provocative actions of Iran and North Korea, coupled with an evolving and asymmetrical terrorist threat, underscore the need for the development of a robust, layered and comprehensive missile defense framework capable of protecting American interests at home and abroad. These realities require a frank assessment of what can and should be prioritized within the upcoming budget deliberations.

The two most recent successful test firings (in May and June) of the IB have exceeded performance expectations relative to how it underperformed upon its first test firing last fall. The accuracy with which it took out its target during the most recent tests by the U.S. Navy have marked a dramatic turnaround from where expectations rested late last year and early this year.

In the June 26 test, an SM-3 IB launched from the cruiser Lake Erie intercepted a separating warhead over the Pacific Ocean that had been discharged from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. Unlike the successful test of the IB in May, the crew of the Lake Erie was unaware of the specific threat to be targeted or the exact launch time. This added a significant layer of operational realism to the test.

Additionally, the ability of the SM-3 IB to intercept a separating warhead reflected a dramatic improvement in functional capabilities, as it proved its kinetic warhead’s ability to distinguish its true target from ancillary debris.

The success of these two tests demonstrated a tremendous capacity on the part of the SM-3 IB to intercept an ever more complex array of ballistic missiles. Early tests conducted last year may have sown doubt within the administration regarding the efficacy of the IB; however, recent tests demonstrably prove otherwise.

Most important, the fundamental challenges facing U.S. national security interests require that the Defense Department maintain an adequate supply of proven and effective anti-ballistic missiles. Given the necessity of prioritizing funds within a finite budget, it would be unwise to divert precious resources from proven national security assets to fund long-term abstractions.

Speaking to the George Marshall Institute in August 2009, Rear Adm. Alan Hicks, former director of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program, the ship-based anti-ballistic missile system to which SM-3s are emplaced, noted that more, not fewer, SM-3s were needed by commanders in the field.

“There will be 218 SM-3 IAs and IBs in inventory by 2015. Now I will also tell you that is inadequate for combatant commander needs, and we still have a tremendous demand signal for more missiles in the inventory,” Hicks said.

In its upcoming deliberations, the Senate Appropriations Committee should acknowledge the scope and nature of the threats facing American forces abroad as well as the asymmetrical threats facing the homeland.

The Senate panel should reject the attenuated procurement of SM-3 IB missiles and instead prioritize funding where it can best be applied to the more immediate security needs of the nation.

Article originally appeared in Defense News