House Committee slashes conventional "global strike" funds

Defense officials say a small number of these arms are necessary as an alternative to some nuclear weapons.

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday recommended a nearly 50 percent cut in funding for the development of conventionally armed, fast-strike weapons for the upcoming budget year.

If the panel's mark-up of the fiscal 2012 defense spending bill eventually makes its way into law, funds for the so-called "conventional prompt global strike" effort would total $104.8 million, a significant drop from the Obama administration's $204.8 million request.

Under the effort, the Defense Department is developing a number of different attack weapon technologies that could eventually be capable of hitting targets halfway around the world with less than an hour's notice.

Pentagon officials say a small number of these conventional arms are necessary as an alternative to using high-speed nuclear weapons in instances in which a surprise threat emerges thousands of miles away that must be struck rapidly, but where there are no U.S. aircraft or ships stationed nearby. This might include a North Korean ballistic missile being readied for launch or a terrorist leader spotted while on the move, defense officials explain.

The first such system to be fielded could be an Air Force Conventional Strike Missile, which would initially launch like a ballistic missile but then be capable of maneuvering to target at speeds exceeding Mach 5.

An initial flight test of a key component of the missile -- a "hypersonic technology vehicle" -- ended in failure in April 2010. A second airborne trial of the vehicle is slated for this August and a more advanced version is expected to undergo a flight test in fiscal 2012.

House panel members moved to enact the $100 million cutback in the program after searching for savings throughout the defense budget, a committee aide told Global Security Newswire on Wednesday. The funds were reallocated toward ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as to "more important, higher priority programs," the staffer said.

The congressional aide spoke on condition of not being named, lacking authority to address the issue publicly. A House Appropriations report on the new legislation did not offer an explanation for the reduction.

The draft decrease in global strike funds is part of the committee's $530 billion appropriations measure for nonemergency defense spending in the coming fiscal year, which begins on October 1. The proposed package cuts $9 billion from President Obama's request, but offers a $17 billion increase over 2011 defense budget figures.

The appropriations legislation is expected to go to a House floor vote as early as next week. It follows the chamber's action late last month to authorize 2012 defense expenditures. Typically authorization bills deal with policy and programmatic matters, while appropriations legislation is necessary for the government to spend funds.

The House Armed Services Committee's defense authorization bill, which passed in a 322-96 floor vote on May 26, recommended a small decrease in conventional prompt global strike funds.

Trimming $25 million from the administration's global strike request, this House panel also issued a defense authorization report challenging the Pentagon's development strategy for the weapon systems.

House members lauded the Defense Department for the "innovation and scientific discovery" associated with developing the Conventional Strike Missile, but said they were "also concerned about pursuing a weaponized missile system, or any material development decision, before demonstrating that the technology is feasible."

Defense officials want the Air Force missile effort to undergo a critical design review in 2012, a crucial step toward putting the so-called "boost-glide" weapon through the paces of a full operational demonstration.

Bugs yet to be worked out in the cutting-edge technology effort include finding ways to prevent the weapon system from burning up as it zooms through the upper atmosphere, as well as developing a guidance system that can control the apparatus at such high speeds.

Surmounting such steep technical challenges is not expected to come cheap. Air Force officials have estimated that the cost to conduct two full demonstrations of the first non-nuclear global strike missile could reach $500 million.

The price tag for procuring three Conventional Strike Missiles -- one to put on alert and another two for back-up -- could be as high as $300 million, according to Defense officials. The initial fielding date has slipped from 2015 to possibly as late as 2017, according to service officials.

Lawmakers last month raised the idea of finding cheaper and easier alternatives to the Conventional Strike Missile.

"The committee is concerned about the affordability of [conventional prompt global strike] given the current budgetary environment," the House defense authorization report states. "Based on briefings by the [Defense] Department, the committee is aware of other potential conventional long-range strike capabilities that may be lower cost, carry less technical risk, and provide a capability sooner" than the Conventional Strike Missile, the report reads.

The panel said it "encourages a broader examination" of the alternatives for undertaking the long-range, fast-attack mission.

The Defense Department has already begun to explore other, potentially more cost-effective options for prompt global strike that might be available in the near term, said a second House aide, who also requested anonymity. Debate is simmering inside the Pentagon over how best to pursue the mission, spurred by those "who don't want to put all their eggs in the HTV basket," said the staffer, referring to the futuristic hypersonic technology vehicle.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is marking up its version of the 2012 defense authorization bill this week in closed session. That chamber's Appropriations Committee will take its stab at next year's defense funding bill after that.

Once these two types of defense spending bills have passed in both chambers, lawmakers from the House and Senate will meet in conferences to hash out a single authorization bill and a single appropriations bill. The resulting legislation is then sent to the president for his signature or veto.

During the current fiscal year, the Pentagon has opted to allocate the lion's share of its $239.9 million global strike budget on the Air Force hypersonic glide concept, spending $147 million to develop and demonstrate the technology, according to one Defense report.

The remainder is being spent on an Army effort to develop an alternative delivery vehicle, re-entry system and warhead; the development of a test range; and defense-wide studies on conventional prompt global strike.

The Senate Appropriations Committee last September called on the administration to break down its lump-sum funding request for global strike into these different types of expenditures, beginning with the fiscal 2012 budget, but the Pentagon has not done so.

Defense officials said they have not yet determined how they would split the 2012 funding, because such a decision is to be based on the results of this year's flight experiments.

In its recent report, the House Armed Services Committee mentioned that it anticipates there will be some excess funds left unspent from fiscal 2011 appropriations for prompt global strike, and those could dollars could help make up for 2012 reductions.

Despite Pentagon descriptions of prompt global strike work as focusing on the Air Force and Army efforts, it appears that the Navy continues to hone a submarine-launched concept for the mission that has been repeatedly rejected by Congress.

Navy budget documents for fiscal 2012 submitted to Congress show that the service this year is spending $10 million to study how a conventionally armed missile could be launched from nuclear ballistic-missile submarines.

Lawmakers have moved to terminate Navy work on the so-called Conventional Trident Modification year after year, citing concerns that Russia or China might mistake the launch of a non-nuclear D-5 missile for the start of an atomic war, potentially setting the stage for a dangerous international crisis.

Nonetheless, conceptual work on converting a number of Trident missiles for a conventional mission appears to proceed. Next year "a study on SSBN-based conventional prompt global strike options will be completed to address safety, security and surety issues, along with ambiguity issues as they relate to various sea-based designs," one Navy budget document states.

The service in 2012 hopes to estimate procurement costs for conventional Trident designs and lay out a possible acquisition schedule for the controversial system, according to the budget report.

This information "is required to better understand the capabilities that could be delivered from naval platforms," the service states.

Advocates of exploring alternatives to a conventional version of the submarine-launched missile, such as the Air Force Conventional Strike Missile, argue it would be better to field a weapon whose launch could not be mistaken for the onset of a nuclear war.

The Conventional Strike Missile and similar long-range weapons could be made verifiable by foreign inspectors or spy satellites, and would follow a flight trajectory noticeably distinct from nuclear-tipped sea-launched ballistic missiles or ICBMs, according to advocates.