General says budget will favor versatile missile defenses

The military's No. 2 officer Monday warned that the missile defense program must evolve into a more flexible system that can adapt to future, unexpected threats.

Speaking at a missile defense conference this morning, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said budgetary pressures demand that the Defense Department invest in systems that can adapt to unexpected threats.

Cartwright added that the department, wrapping up internal deliberations on the fiscal 2010 budget, is placing a priority on programs that allow the military to stay ahead of the threat and maintain a "competitive edge" over potential adversaries.

For missile defense, that means developing sensors and command-and-control technologies that allow the weapons system to change quickly. "The leverage is in that sensor net and the leverage is in the command and control of that sensor net," he said. "Would you buy, in tough economic times, something that does one thing well or something that does 100 things well and you haven't thought of 50 of the 100 yet?"

Also Monday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., criticized the Bush administration's handling of missile defense efforts. Under Bush, he said, the Pentagon did not require the missile defense system -- the most expensive program on the Pentagon's books -- to go through rigorous testing and adhere to strict acquisition regulations.

"For the last eight years, these programs have been exempted from normal acquisition requirements and processes, and the results have not been favorable," Levin said. In a speech to the conference, Levin cited a recent Government Accountability Office report, which found that many technologies in core missile defense systems -- including the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, Multiple Kill Vehicle and Airborne Laser -- are immature after years of development.

"This is the high price that we have paid for our failure to impose needed discipline on our overall acquisition system, and for our failure to complete needed system engineering tasks, perform appropriate developmental testing and build and fully test prototypes," said Levin, who is sponsoring legislation with Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., to overhaul the Pentagon's weapons-buying system.

Both Levin and House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., expressed confidence in new leadership at the Missile Defense Agency. Agency chief Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, they said, is committed to adequately testing the systems and otherwise changing how missile defense capabilities get to the field. Tauscher, who is President Obama's pick to be undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, acknowledged that funding levels for missile defense programs may decline because of budget pressures. Areas of potential cuts, she signaled, include problematic programs like the Airborne Laser, which is eight years behind schedule and $4 billion over budget.

"We can no longer continue to do everything and explore every potential technology," she said. "Missile defense cannot be like some second marriages -- the triumph of hope over experience."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec