Double-speak on missile defense

Cindy Williams and David Wright
August 4, 2001
Boston Globe

Last week, Russia signaled a new willingness to change the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The softening of Moscow's stance lowers one barrier standing in the way of US plans for a national missile defense. For President Bush, it also serves as a first step toward delivering on a central promise of the election campaign: to change the ABM Treaty to accommodate his missile defense plans or to abandon it. But the approach the administration hopes to use to purchase and field the first increment of defensive capability should set off alarm bells for American taxpayers and Congress.

The administration wants to build a command center and dig silos to house a handful of missile defense interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, the intended operational site for its midcourse national missile defense system. Rather than calling those activities by their real names - procurement and deployment - Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has told Congress the site is merely part of a test bed that will be used in the research and development phase of Pentagon acquisition.

Yet in a severe bout of double-speak, the Pentagon argues that this site could be operated as an emergency missile defense if the United States comes under attack.

The distinction between testing and R&D, on the one hand, and deployment and procurement, on the other, may sound arcane. But the assignment of Defense Department activities among appropriation titles - procurement, research and development, military personnel, operation and maintenance, military construction - constitutes one of the key tools the Congress can use to exercise its powers of oversight and control of military spending.

The rules about R&D and procurement were put in place to protect taxpayers from large expenditures to purchase and field systems that have not been fully tested or do not work. They also help to ensure that military and civilian decision makers know clearly what they have bought and how well it works, before they must make the choice to use it. Blurring the distinction can be militarily dangerous; it also sets a bad fiscal precedent for other programs.

Ironically, because Fort Greely is far inland and close to population centers, the Pentagon says it would not risk launching test interceptors from the site. As a result, silos placed at the fort would have no utility in an intercept test program.

Putting interceptors at Fort Greely makes military sense only if the real purpose is to use them operationally against a real enemy - that is, to treat them as a deployment rather than a test bed. Putting them there makes great political sense for President Bush, however.

Whatever the administration calls it, building silos at Fort Greely would be a clear violation of the ABM Treaty.

Calling the Fort Greely deployment a test bed instead of an operational deployment solves a gnawing problem for the administration.

Although the test conducted this month appears to have gone well, the technology for a national missile defense is nowhere near ready to deploy. An internal Defense Department report on national missile defense testing identifies a spate of problems, including unrealistic testing and long developmental delays. Experts outside the Pentagon warn that decoys and other countermeasures that must be expected to accompany a real missile attack can fool the system.

If the system built in Alaska is merely part of a test bed, then presumably taxpayers should not be troubled that the test program is less than rigorous, that interceptors fail to hit their targets, or that key capabilities are entirely absent. After all, the administration can argue, the system is still in research and development; we're just exploring concepts here.

Calling the new set-up a research and development effort, but intending to use it operationally, would appear to violate the Defense Department's own financial rules, which say that equipment intended for operational use should be treated as procurement rather than R&D. The Pentagon may argue that national missile defense is not the first program to violate that rule. Some of the department's theater missile defense programs call for user operational evaluation systems that blur the lines between testing and procurement, thereby skirting the rules that would require thorough testing of equipment before making a large purchase. Like the national missile defense system, at least one of those programs has been plagued with test failures. Enforcing existing regulations more strictly on those programs might improve their chances of delivering systems that work.

The administration has things half right about national missile defense: slowing the program down by extending the R&D effort would be the best thing for it. Keeping it in the development phase would give the engineers the space they need to rethink the technology, build the simulations, experiment with sensors, and possibly come up with a system that works. But to combine that slowdown with a push for immediate deployment, however named, is a mistake.

Intimating that this faulty system could work if the United States comes under attack fosters dangerous misperceptions on the part of decision makers. Paying for deployment at the intended operational site before the system has been adequately tested wastes taxpayers' money. And blurring the lines among the appropriation categories risks weakening congressional oversight.

If this major program can skirt congressional oversight and fiscal responsibility so easily, what can we expect when other programs have manufacturing lines ready to roll even though they fail their tests?