Despite setbacks, Pentagon defends missile defense program

Pentagon officials defended the president's deployment of a rudimentary missile defense system last year before House lawmakers Tuesday, seeking to allay concerns over recent test failures.

House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Terry Everett, R-Ala., questioned the December and February tests involving the Pentagon's ground-based midcourse defense program, and the administration's decision to reduce funding for the ballistic missile defense effort by $1 billion in the fiscal 2006 budget request.

Everett said he supports the GMD program but expressed concerned with a system hardware failure during a February test in which a horizontal restraining arm failed to retract before launch.

"I have a real problem that a latch did not fall away -- that seems so elementary," Everett told Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency. "This stuff costs an awful lot of money, and we have to have some results."

Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee ranking member Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, also questioned the program's recent failures, but emphasized his support for GMD in his opening remarks.

"I think we will eventually prove that this system will be an effective insurance policy against a limited [intercontinental ballistic missile] threat," Reyes said, but later added "We should not pretend that GMD is an all-star system when it is still in development in the minor leagues. You can ruin a ballplayer by rushing him to the big leagues, and you can ruin this system by making it run before it can even prove it can walk."

During questioning, David Duma, the Pentagon's acting director of operational test and evaluation, told Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., that the GMD system is not operationally ready. "We don't have a demonstrated capability from detection to negating the incoming threat," he said. However, Duma said he is encouraged by several developments over past year, including the system's test bed program, which he said has significantly improved the system's testing infrastructure to lead to more operationally realistic testing. He also defended the plan to stand up a limited defensive capability as "a useful way to coordinate system development," despite criticism that the system is not mature enough yet for deployment. But Obering countered critics of the GMD program, asserting that "to say that it doesn't work is a little bit too expansive." Obering defended the system and the department's testing of it and asserted his confidence in the program. But Reyes questioned why Obering appointed an independent review team to assess the most recent test failure in February if he did not see the failure as a serious setback.

"I was trying to convey that it is not, in my opinion, a major issue with respect to overall functionality of the system," Obering said, adding that the independent panel he put in place to review the failure is intended to "overkill this" and to "drive out every bit of concern." Obering added the team's report will be finalized by the end of the month.