Reading through the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2013 is a surreal experience. While the rest of us are watching our elected officials careen from one (self-inflicted) macroeconomic crisis to the other, largely over issues related to the national deficit, the FY2013 NDAA appears to exist in a Neverneverland of constantly rising defense budgets despite increasingly dire warnings about the country's fiscal health.
With the recent remake of Red Dawn and David Lee Roth fronting Van Halen again, there are moments when I feel like it is 1984. (Speaking of the mid-80s nostalgia, did you know that Monday was the day to which Marty McFly traveled in Back to the Future II? Where, as Calvin asked, is my flying car?)
Nowhere is nostalgia for the heady days of Ronald Reagan more apparent than the section in the NDAA relating to funding for a new site somewhere in New England to defend against long-range ballistic missiles from Iran.
This summer, House Republicans became very enthused about the prospect of adding yet another site of ground-based midcourse defense interceptors to go with those in Alaska and California. They claim they were encouraged by the recommendations of several groups, including a recent National Academies study on boost-phase missile defense.
(It is perhaps necessary here to note that the United States has a very large number of programs to develop different missile defenses for different classes of missiles in different periods of their flight -- boost, midcourse, and terminal. In English, that is up to space, through space, and back down again. A system to intercept a short-range ballistic missile as it falls back toward earth is very different from something designed to hit a rocket as it is launching.)
At first, the notion of an East Coast interceptor site drew mild mockery. Al Kamen, of the Washington Post, held a contest to ask readers to suggest a location for the interceptors. Entries included schemes to protect valuable national treasures such as Fenway Park and Snookie.
I submitted Mianus, CT. As in, imagine the now-retired Joe Lieberman standing before the local gentry, solemnly declaring: "I strongly support the emplacement of two dozen ground-based interceptors, right here in Mianus. I can think of no better place to put them." I mean, how can you disagree with that?
Somehow I didn't win the contest. (I was robbed, I tell you.) In fact, actual sites under consideration to host the missile defense interceptors include Fort Drum, NY and Caribou, ME.
Undeterred by the prospect of ridicule, the House added $100 million to fund an environmental impact assessment of three sites. Republican senators, led by New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, pushed a similar measure. Ayotte's measure did not make it into the final Senate bill, but it prevailed in conference.
Which, of course, raises the obvious question: Do we need another missile defense site?
Well, we certainly don't need another site like the one in Alaska. One of the strange features of this debate is that the House measure would study placing current U.S. ground-based interceptors in New England, even though the National Academies would terminate that program.
The National Academies was asked to study intercepting missiles in the boost phase of their flight, as well as the alternatives. The committee was apparently so convinced of the impossibility of the boost-phase intercept that it started looking at alternatives -- specifically, the existing midcourse system, which provides the best opportunity to shoot down long-range missiles. The committee was, to judge by the text, shocked at the incompetence and mismanagement it found in U.S. missile defense programs. The report is a scathing indictment of U.S. missile defense efforts in general, and the Missile Defense Agency in particular. Here is a sample comment regarding one programmatic decision: "That this was not understood by those responsible for managing these systems raises questions about the systems analysis capability of the MDA and others." That is Washington-ese for "These people do not know what they are doing." Even a casual read of the report raises questions about whether the Missile Defense Agency should be abolished, with the programs turned over to the services.