Gates Grounds the Airborne White Elephant Laser

Now reporting to President Obama, who favors weapons programs that are effective and affordable, Gates is finally free to say that many of these programs don't work.
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What a difference a president makes. Under President George Bush, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates resolutely defended every dime of last year's $11 billion budget for anti-missile weapons programs. Now reporting to President Obama, who favors weapons programs that are operationally effective and affordable, he is free to say what military officials have known for years: many of these programs don't work. He has trimmed $1.6 billion from the budget and axed three of the worst projects, infuriating the high priests of the missile defense cargo cult.

Independent experts have been documenting the serious flaws for years, but have been out shouted by these theologians and the major defense contractors. Victoria Samson, for example, has carefully tracked these programs at the Center for Defense Information. Four years ago she reported on the deep flaws in one: the Airborne Laser.

Forget the many technical problems that convinced many of us that this flying white elephant would never work. All you have to know is this: air crews would have to fly an unarmed 747 plane carrying the laser deep into enemy territory and circle for hours in order to even have a chance of getting a shot at an enemy missile rising from cloud cover.

If that strikes you as a suicide mission, you are right. This is one reason why now-Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher tried to kill this boondoggle when she was chair of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. She was beaten back by Boeing Company and those members whose districts benefited from the plane's contracts.

Now Secretary of Defense Gates is slowly restoring some common sense to these programs. Here is what he said July 16 in Chicago:

Correspondingly, the recent tests of a possible nuclear device and ballistic missiles by North Korea brought scrutiny to the changes in this budget that relate to missile defense. The risk to national security has again been invoked, mainly because the total missile defense budget was reduced from last year.

In fact, where the threat is real or growing - from rogue states or from short-to-medium range missiles that can hit our deployed troops or our allies and friends - this budget sustains or increases funding. Most of the cuts in this area come from two programs that are designed to shoot down enemy missiles immediately after launch. This was a great idea, but the aspiration was overwhelmed by the escalating costs, operational problems, and technological challenges.

Consider the example of one of those programs - the Airborne Laser. This was supposed to put high-powered lasers on a fleet of 747s. After more than a decade of research and development, we have yet to achieve a laser with enough power to knock down a missile in boost phase more than 50 miles from the launch pad - thus requiring these huge planes to loiter deep in enemy air space to have a feasible chance at a direct hit.

Moreover, the 10 to 20 aircraft needed would cost about $1.5 billion each plus tens of millions of dollars each year for maintenance and operating costs. The program and operating concept were fatally flawed and it was time to face reality. So we curtailed the existing program while keeping the prototype aircraft for research and development.


Some have called for yet more analysis before making any of the decisions in this budget. But when dealing with programs that were clearly out of control, performing poorly, and excess to the military's real requirements, we did not need more study, more debate, or more delay - in effect, paralysis through analysis. What was needed were three things - common sense, political will, and tough decisions. Qualities too often in short supply in Washington, D.C.

All of these decisions involved considering trade-offs, balancing risks, and setting priorities - separating nice-to-haves from have-to-haves, requirements from appetites. We cannot expect to eliminate risk and danger by simply spending more - especially if we're spending on the wrong things. But more to the point, we all - the military, the Congress, and industry - have to face some iron fiscal realities.

The anti-missile program is still packed with pork. There is no sign that realistic testing will be required of the weapons. Worse, the Bush-created Missile Defense Agency still exists, operating as a full-time, in-house lobbyist.

But we are seeing some progress, some effort to rein in run-away spending. The President will need to do much more next year when he produces his first real Obama defense budget.

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