March 4, 2011 | The Hill

Obama’s Backward Budget Priorities

Most Americans first learned of the Patriot anti-missile system during the Gulf War. The picture was harrowing: rockets blazed across the sky toward U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and Israeli cities, where families huddled in their basements and bomb shelters. But just before one of Saddam Hussein’s deadly SCUD missiles could reach its target, another missile skyrocketed up and destroyed it in mid-air. The Patriot’s performance in the Gulf War, while not 100 percent, demonstrated what missile defenses could do.

The budget the Obama administration submitted to Congress last month will wisely extend the Patriot’s lease on life, but it will slash critical funding for other important missile defense programs. The budget cuts funding for the only system currently in place to defend the U.S. homeland against long-range missiles – the Ground Based Midcourse Defense system – and for systems designed to intercept missiles while they are still over enemy territory, before they can release decoys or countermeasures.

Missile defense supporters in Congress should work in a bipartisan manner to restore funding for these systems. But not all defense programs are created equal, and there is one cut missile defense supporters should support wholeheartedly: The Department of Defense has announced that the U.S. will end participation with Italy and Germany in the Medium Extended Air Defense System.

Begun in 1995, MEADS was designed to defend against short-range ballistic and cruise missiles and aircraft more fully than the Patriot system, and eventually to replace it altogether. But its costs have soared and it continually fails to meet deadlines. As the Pentagon explains, other programs can accomplish much of what MEADS was designed for at a lower cost. If the Patriot itself can do the job with a few improvements, it should.

Nevertheless, while the Obama administration knows the U.S. will not go forward with MEADS, it decided to continue funding the program through 2013 to avoid expensive termination costs incurred for ending it before the date set by the three partner countries. This will cost the American taxpayer another $804 million. Instead, the White House should work to persuade the Italians and Germans to agree to terminate the program now. Recent reports suggest the Germans are already giving serious thought to killing the program, and may not need much convincing.

Cutting MEADS now would save U.S. taxpayers roughly half a billion dollars over the next two years. This money would be better spent on less developed programs to fill in the gaps in our existing defenses. The Patriot remains vital to U.S. defenses. In recent years, it intercepted missiles in Operation Iraqi Freedom, it continues to be deployed in the Persian Gulf and in Europe, and U.S. forces in South Korea depend on it every day to deter the threat from the North.

Patriot is also compatible with other key U.S. defense systems, including THAAD and Aegis, key elements in the Obama administration’s European Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense. Four NATO countries and seven other U.S. allies already deploy the Patriot. In total, these 11 allies foot 60 percent of the bill to sustain the system, significantly reducing the cost to the American people.

Indeed, the UAE and Korea recently committed a combined total of approximately $400 million to additional research and development on the Patriot.That says a lot about today’s threat environment. As Iran and North Korea, the world’s leaders in terrorism and missile proliferation, continue to bully their neighbors, U.S. military cooperation is more important to our allies than ever. The Patriot plays a critical role in our efforts to deter regional aggression.

Since the 1980s, Congress has reached a consensus in support of short-range missile defenses. Americans can see that Patriot was worth their money, as it continues to pay security dividends today. The challenge for fiscally minded defense advocates is to discern between the indispensible — and sometimes costly — programs and those that are truly unnecessary.

The MEADS will eventually end, and it should. But the Obama administration’s latest budget preserves it through 2013, while shortchanging programs for which there are no substitutes.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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