- By John Reed
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.
Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. Buck McKeon are tying last Friday’s failure of an interceptor to hit a fake ICBM to the White House’s decision to chop funding for missile defense efforts.
It’s a bit of an odd position to take, considering last week’s test of the Ground-base Midcourse Defense (GMD) systems marked the third time in a row in the system has failed to hit a simulated incoming ballistic missile. (The last successful test happened in 2008.) In fact, of 17 such tests conducted since 1999, nine have failed to hit the target. Needless to say, intercepting ICBMs racing through space is insanely hard. But the Pentagon has spent more than $100 billion on such technology since the 1980s.
On Friday, Inhofe and McKeon, joined by Sen. Jeff Sessions and Rep. Mike Rogers, wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a letter "expressing concern over the recent failed test of the ground-based midcourse defense system and requested a plan to resolve the cause of the failures," reads a press release from Inhofe’s office. The lawmakers argue that it’s "clear that President Obama’s decision to drastically cut funding for the GMD program since he came to office and to ‘curtail addition [sic] GMD development,’ has drained funding available to conduct needed tests of the system."
While the White House has cut GMD infrastructure in previous years, it’s not doing so now. True, the Pentagon’s latest budget request cut overall missile defense spending by about $550 million — out of more than $9.71 billion — in next year’s Pentagon budget. But that cut was mostly to an entirely different missile system from the one the lawmakers are writing about.
The recent cuts mostly hit a Lockheed Martin-made system called MEADS, the Mobile Extended Air Defense System. MEADS is primarily mean to serve as the follow-on to the U.S. Army’s Patriot antiaircraft missiles — these can also be used to knock out smaller, slower missiles.
GMD missiles, on the other hand, are meant to hit ICBMs as they hurtle through space at wild speeds on their way to targets around the globe.
So while MEADS took a cut, the Pentagon increased its funding request for the Boeing-made GMD system by $100 million, bringing the 2014 budget for the GMD program to roughly $1 billon. This comes as the Defense Department announced that it would be sending 14 additional GMD interceptors to Alaska to defend against attack from North Korea or Iran. (To be fair, that $100 million increase wouldn’t even cover last week’s $214 million test.)
Inhofe and company go on to ask the Missile Defense Agency provide them with its plan to figure out what caused the failure and to conduct future tests. They also want the agency to provide a "clear roadmap" for the development of a next-generation kill vehicle. That’s the actual piece of metal that destroys ballistic missiles traveling through space by slamming into them at unbelievable speeds, 22,000 miles per hour to be specific — like a car crash times a gazillion.
While the Republican lawmakers may have a point about the need for increased testing and better missile defense technology, lets hope they do it in a smarter way.
In the meantime, it’s probably worth remembering that the U.S. military has been looking at ways to knock ICBMs out of space ever since ballistic missiles were invented.
"Although there now seem to be insurmountable difficulties in an active defense against future atomic projectiles similar to the German V-2 but armed with atomic explosives, this condition should only intensify our efforts to discover an effective means of defense," said then-Army Air Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold. That was nearly 70 years ago, in 1945.