It's about to get hot in Washington, D.C. -- and that's not just because we're getting closer to the start of pool season. With lawmakers returning from their Easter break to tackle the FY 2013 budget, the fight over our nation's fiscal future is entering the next round.
In a departure from previous years, defense spending -- an area that has in the past largely escaped fiscal scrutiny -- has entered the national discourse. Against the backdrop of unprecedented and unsustainable government spending levels, fiscal responsibility warrants that no area of the budget should be off limits; even more so, as it is a well-documented fact that the Department of Defense (DoD), whose budget has dramatically increased since 1998, is plagued with a history of cost overruns and wasteful spending.
Due to the critical nature of DoD's mission and the parochial nature of defense spending, however, striking the precarious balance between appropriate levels of service and fiscal prudence in the realm of defense is a particularly delicate matter. Recent international developments -- among them increased hostility on the part of Iran, which Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta states may be only two or three years away from nuclear action against the U.S. -- make navigating these waters an even more delicate task.
As a recent Rasmussen poll shows, a majority of Americans believe that a missile attack on the U.S. is likely to occur in the near future, and favor the installation of a U.S. anti-missile defense system, which certainly carries a hefty price tag.
However, action taken by Congress last year shows that even in the defense budget, finding compromise without compromising is possible -- or, as Mark Pfeifle, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications and Global Outreach, phrased it: "if recent events serve as a blueprint, Congress has some guidance in how it can achieve the necessary spending cuts without sacrificing the missile shield that is needed to protect our national security."
At present, our regional missile defenses center on the Aegis weapons system, a comprehensive ship-based platform operated by the U.S. Navy. It is responsible for tracking, intercepting, and destroying targets ranging from aircraft to ships and ballistic and cruise missiles. As part of a U.S. and NATO-supported "Phased Adaptive Approach," the Aegis system currently relies on the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) version "Block IA."
This missile constitutes the first of four planned phases of increasingly complex missile development, the overall conclusion of which will extend to protecting the U.S. homeland into the 2020s. While stage three of the program, centered on a variant called SM-3 Block IIA, is a non-controversial co-development effort between the U.S. and Japan to be completed by 2018, a funding controversy is brewing over the other two variants: the SM-3 Block IB, which is on track for deployment in 2015, and the SM-3 Block IIB, which at this point is not even fully conceptualized, and would by no means be operational before 2020.
Conscious of the evolving nature of external threats -- including Iran's saber-rattling, which may put our defenses to the test sooner than anyone would hope -- while at the same time acknowledging our dire fiscal straits, Congress last year decided that we need to focus on first things first, and struck funding for the development of the futuristic SM-3 Block IIB.
Instead, it applied those funds towards the production of the SM-3 Block IB, a move supported by military experts and fiscal watchdogs alike -- for good reasons. This next SM-3 variant builds on the successful technology of Block IA, which has been on time and on budget, while outperforming expectations on various occasions. Block IA has a proven track record to take out ballistic missiles, including intermediate range missiles. With increased capabilities, including better target discrimination, experts say the SM-3 Block IB will even be able to counter both long-range missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2015 -- a welcome and timely development Americans overwhelming support.
Unfortunately, the President's FY 2013 budget ignores the wishes of Congress and the American people and reinstates funding for the "PowerPoint" SM-3 Block IIB missile program, while slashing resources for the completion of the next logical phase in our missile defense system -- the Block IB missile.
As the budget fight heats up, Congress should correct this mistake. Funding experimental projects rather than focusing limited fiscal resources on proven technologies to counter near-term threats is not only akin to putting the cart before the proverbial horse -- it is a potentially dangerous gamble we as taxpayers, and as a nation, cannot afford to take.