CBO: Missile defense spending to peak in 2016 at $15 billion

Government has spent billions on a missile shield designed to protect the United States and its allies, but the program has yet to create an operational defense according to critics.

Current plans indicate that annual spending on the missile defense system will peak in 2016 at about $15 billion, according to a recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

The government has spent billions on a missile shield designed to protect the United States and its allies from the threat of ballistic missiles, but the program has yet to create an operational defense, critics say.

Missile defense programs have a mixed record in testing; in September, a target missile in an intercept drill had to be destroyed shortly after launching.

The most advanced components of the system "may" rather than "should" have some defensive capability against a limited attack, Defense Department Operational Test and Evaluation Director David Duma stated in January.

Defense officials, though, have continued to express their belief in the system's ability to bring down an ICBM. Asked in June how much faith he put in the system, Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Henry Obering said, "In my mind it's a much higher confidence than what has been described by our critics."

Funding for the program remains robust and the budget office expects it to reach its highest level in 2016 as a number of defense systems move through the procurement phase and begin to be deployed. Annual costs would then decline to about $8 billion in 2024, the office expects.

The peak comes roughly three years later than the date projected by budget analysts in a 2005 report, due to delays a number of major projects. The budget office analysis does not detail the nature of those delays.

In preparing its report, the Congressional Budget Office examined current Pentagon plans for missile defenses as well as policy statements from the White House. Virginia Samson, a missile defense analyst with the Center for Defense Information, called the analysis a valuable peek into the future of U.S. missile defenses.

The Missile Defense Agency faces different reporting requirements than other military agencies regarding its budget requests and details of its programs remain relatively murky, Samson said. "I think it's one of the better things that we have," she said of the budget projections released last month.

The funding for the missile defense program has been set by Congress at $9.4 billion for fiscal 2007. The analysis by the budget office, however, does not provide precise yearly estimates going forward, nor does it provide a precise breakdown of estimated funding for each missile defense program.

Due to the spiral nature of the missile defense development -- programs are rolled out even as they continue to be developed to create an interim defense capability -- requirements for program details are loosened for missile defense, Samson said. "For whatever reason missile defense is thought to be in such a special category that it can do that type of thing," she said.

That makes projecting costs years in advance very difficult, Samson said. "It just makes oversight very hard."

The president's fiscal 2007 budget request and the Defense Department's Future Years Defense Program report propose funding averaging $10 billion annually for continued research and development of an overall missile defense system through 2024.

Another $500 million annually would go toward systems designed to intercept missiles toward their end of their flights, such as Patriot Advanced Capability 3 missile interceptors.

The projected spending would fund research, development and testing of antimissile systems designed to counter ballistic missiles in all phases of flight -- shortly after they are launched, in midflight and as they re-enter the atmosphere.

According to the CBO analysis, an expanded deployment of the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system will be completed in 2013, but the government will continue to purchase additional missile interceptors through 2017. Total cost for work on the system through 2017 is estimated at $18 billion.

The office also expects the Defense Department to develop and deploy "a constellation of space-based infrared sensor satellites." Such satellites would be able to detect and track ballistic missiles in flight beginning shortly after their launch. That data would then be relayed back to interceptors launched to destroy the warheads.

The Defense Department's initial plans include a constellation of 24 to 27 satellites, but the budget office interprets current plans as calling for the launch of a five-satellite group in 2014. In 2017, more satellites would be launched, bringing the total up to nine, according to the budget office, which anticipates the total cost for the two groups to be $7 billion.

For terminal-phase defenses, including the PAC-3 short-range missile defense systems, Medium Extended Air-Defense System and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, the budget office researchers estimate annual funding of about $2 billion a year through 2024.

The Pentagon is also expected to spend $500 million in fiscal 2008 for the Space Test Bed to support research for boost-phase interceptors in space, according to budget office researchers.

Information on the Space Test Bed is thin, but the fact that the Missile Defense Agency is going to seek funding as soon as 2008 to place weapon-related items in space is significant, Samson said. As to what exactly the plans entail, "we can only hazard a guess at this point," she said.

To begin the weaponization of space "would be a huge change in policy for the United States," Samson said.

In June, both Russia and China told the U.N. Conference on Disarmament that the threat of space-based weapons could be equal to that posed by weapons of mass destruction.

A State Department official, however, asserted U.S. rights to develop space-based weapons. John Mohanco, State Department deputy director for multilateral, nuclear and security affairs, told the Conference on Disarmament that space weapons could help safeguard military and commercial satellites.

Washington, he said, would oppose any international efforts restricting its plans. "As long as the potential for such attacks remains, our government will continue to consider the possible role that space-related weapons may play in protecting our assets," he said.

Still, he added that "for our part, the United States does not have any weapons in space, nor do we have plans to build such weapons."