The silver anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech came and went quietly this week. However, the research program to develop ballistic missile defense still remains a big-ticket item a quarter-century later.
For 2009, the White House is requesting $12.3 billion to develop ballistic missile defense. This is on top of the more than $120 billion taxpayers have already spent since 1985 to develop a system that still has yet to be realistically tested and may never be operationally effective.
Over the past decade, security experts have warned that the most likely way a nuclear weapon will find its way into the United States is hidden in the cargo of a ship or smuggled across US borders. But this spring the Bush administration asked for just $210 million for port security grants, slashing by one-half what Congress allocated in 2008.
Part of the problem is the White House and Congress have not organized themselves to evaluate defense and homeland security budgets side-by-side. The Office of Management and Budget has never weighed whether an additional dollar spent on missile defense might be better used to fund the Coast Guard, Customs, or the Massachusetts Port Authority to protect a ship with liquefied natural gas transiting Boston Harbor or to detect and intercept a dirty bomb smuggled in on a small boat or in a cargo container.
Capitol Hill also retains its pre-Sept. 11, 2001, spending oversight process that treats the half-trillion-dollar Pentagon outlays in isolation from the far smaller budgets for the frontline agencies now housed in the Department of Homeland Security. Separate authorization and appropriations panels and subcommittees review and approve the Defense and Homeland Security budgets.
We recently participated in congressional hearings on ballistic missile defense as chairman and witness, respectively. We came away from that event convinced of two things.
First, the investment the Bush administration has been making to deal with the nuclear missile threat is way out of balance with the more probable nonmissile threat. The combined budget for funding all the domestic and international maritime and port-of-entry interdiction efforts pursued by the Coast Guard, Customs, and Border Protection, plus the domestic nuclear-detection activities performed by the Department of Homeland Security, is only one-half of the annual budget the White House wants for missile defense.
Second, even if spending hundreds of billions of dollars could overcome the tremendous technological challenges that go with constructing an effective missile shield around America, it would only elevate the motivation for America’s adversaries to select the easier, lower-cost, and anonymous alternative of smuggling a nuclear weapon into the United States.
Only Great Britain, France, Russia, and China join the United States in having intercontinental missiles. The challenges facing other countries such as Iran who might want to join this club are, according to testimony from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, “extraordinary.” There are many technical hurdles: creating a sophisticated propulsion system, a guidance system that is immune to jamming, a miniaturized nuclear bomb, a vehicle that can survive reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, and the management to integrate and test all these systems together.
The US intelligence community should conduct a comprehensive assessment that evaluates the nonmissile versus missile threat to the US homeland. The White House’s budget request should be linked to this evaluation.
But in the end, it falls to Congress to make the final decision on how taxpayer dollars should be spent. It must organize itself so that the homeland security and national defense matters are not allowed to ride on separate and unequal tracks.
Five years ago this month, the Bush administration took its eye off the ball when it invaded Iraq instead of pursuing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Throughout the Bush presidency, it has been doing the same by investing more heavily in missile defense than port and border security. The best way to mark the 25th anniversary of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech would be with a debate about its strategic relevance in our post-Sept. 11 world.
Democratic Representative John Tierney of Massachusetts is chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs and National Security. Stephen Flynn is a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Edge of Disaster.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.