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Missile Defense: A Missed Opportunity

Americans who get their news only from mainstream broadcast outlets must think that Democrats want to increase all spending except for defense, while Republicans want to cut all spending except for defense, and there, they want to spend recklessly. Like most distorted news, there is a kernel of truth to this notion. Unfortunately, the passage of the defense authorization bill in the U.S. House of Representatives this week lends credibility to this skeptical view. It needn’t be this way.

In a piece for The Hill in November, I warned about the danger that the Super Committee would cut military spending for the sake of cutting, without taking into account immediate and short term military needs, while spending, without discipline, on programs that are still only on the drawing board. Perhaps even this warning was overly optimistic, since the Super Committee failed to tackle budget cuts at all.

But the defense authorization bill passed by the House, and the same bill expected to pass the Senate this week, represents a missed opportunity to carefully cut spending while maintaining critical defense needs. 

Politically, the authorization bill gives partisans on both sides of the aisle something to complain about. Democrats can legitimately charge that Republicans are spending like drunken sailors, while, Republicans can fairly make a case that defense cuts have gone too far by not providing the military with the tools they need to protect us in an increasingly dangerous and interconnected world.

Republicans are in fact open to charges of budgetary hypocrisy, by allocating $123 million on the pie-in-the-sky SM 3 II-B missile defense system, a plan that even the hawkish Heritage Foundation isn’t listing as a priority in their new report on the North Korean missile threat.

At the same time, the authorization bill fails to increase funding for systems either currently and successfully deployed (I-A), or actually in development such as the (I-B and II-A) SM 3 missile systems as called for by experts in the military community. This  gives credence to Republican charges that Democratic calls for military spending cuts fail to protect us from real, immediate, and growing threats. There is a better approach.

The Senate Appropriations (as opposed to Authorization) Committee, in a unanimous bi-partisan vote this fall, proposed a sensible approach that should be used as a model for maintaining a strong defense in this time of austere budgets. The plan reigns in long-term spending on the wish-list II-B, a yet-to-be-developed missile system, while redirecting a portion of the savings to fund an adequate supply of a proven missile system that defends against the most immediate threats facing our interests around the world.

It isn’t too late for Congress to put fiscal responsibility and sound defense planning first, by adopting the Senate Appropriations Committee approach. We can cut missile spending while still providing for a strong national defense. Such an approach may not be in the best interest of partisans, but it sure makes good sense to me.

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