Tags: missile | defense | ellison

Lobbyist: Senate Vote Sends Message On Missile Defense

Friday, 09 Oct 2009 07:58 PM

By John Rossomando

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A leading missile defense lobbyist sees promise in a key Senate vote restoring funding for the missile defense program that had been slated for Poland that the Czech Republic, which President Barack Obama canceled last month. Most analysts suggested the president made his decision in an effort to win points with the Russians against Iran.

The announcement the administration was canceling the program in favor of a smaller sea- and land-based missile defense system that focuses on defending Europe and the Middle East from short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles disturbed many on Capitol Hill.

“If a missile is headed toward the U.S., the ideal is to get a first shot at it from a European site,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., told The Hill following last month’s announcement. “If we miss, then the Alaska and California sites have a second shot. The problem is, if you look at a map, the alternate system they’re talking about now leaves only one chance, which is the Alaska and California sites.”

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Lieberman and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., responded to the administration’s announcement by introducing an amendment to restore program funding. Under their amendment, which passed on Oct. 6, the Missile Defense Agency will receive $151 million to develop and test the two-stage ground-based interceptor, which is designed to hit long-range ICBMs.

Riki Ellison, president and chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, who was responsible in August for raising global awareness over the Obama administration’s then-pending plans to scrap the system, called the vote important because it provides a hedge against the potential Iranian missile threat. He is confident the amendment will remain in place in the final version of the defense appropriations bill and that the president will not veto the legislation.

“This provides a hedge in case the SM-3 Block 2 missile doesn’t work and in case the threat from Iran comes sooner than 10 years from now,” Ellison said.

Having the two-stage ground-based interceptor as an option, Ellison says, provides an alternative that could protect the United States and some of Europe from an Iranian ballistic missile. The U.S. already has purchased of the two ground-based interceptor missiles that were specifically designed for deployment in Poland.

“We need to continue to test those in case Iran is further to their capability than the 10-year window is projecting,” Ellison said. “The National Intelligence Estimates over the last four or five years have projected Iran to be able to get [a] nuclear warhead capability by 2015 ? five years ahead of what the administration is projecting.

“I don’t see any threat change over the last year to say that the Iran threat is pushed back another five years, so I think this is very prudent for Congress to challenge on this aspect to ensure our country has the national security it needs.”

Ellison said Obama’s plan leaves the U.S. vulnerable to attack if Iran is closer to deploying an ICBM than the U.S. intelligence community has been willing to admit, and the SM-3 Block 2 missile the administration hopes to use against long-range missiles will not be ready until 2020.

Consequently, continuing development of the recently canceled system would fill that gap in his opinion.

Others see Ellison’s claims as overly optimistic because Congress has never previously overridden the executive branch on a major defense-related issue of international importance. Although Congress has previously overridden prior administrations on pork items such as cargo planes, nothing akin to this has ever been enacted.

“I don’t think there is much traction to reverse administration policy,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

Pike said the administration’s four-phased plan likely puts the ground-based interceptor program into play in all but the name because the SM-3 Block 2 missile will have little in common with the existing SM-3 family of missiles except for the name. Unlike the existing shipborne and land-based missile interceptors, the latter missile is intended to shoot down ICBMs rather than short- or intermediate range ballistic missiles.

“The GAO may end up having to agree it is a new project and needs to be competitively bid,” Pike said. “The near-term policy decision to remove [the ground-based interceptors] is irrational.”

Larry Korb, an expert with the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, shares Pike’s assessment. He said the amendment likely would have little impact on the Obama administration’s approach to missile defense.

“What people forget is that the system was not designed to protect against Iran and that it was part of the national missile defense system,” Korb said. “It has never been shown to be able to defend against missiles that go outside of the atmosphere, and they also don’t work because you can put decoys.

Korb says he supports the administration’s decision because the more immediate threats are posed by short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

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