A tilt that could kill SDI?

BY: Frank Gaffney Jr.
The Washington Times, July 1, 1991

A small but determined band of congressional supporters of the Strategic Defense Initiative are considering a dramatic strategy intended to shore up Bush administration support for the program and improve the prospects for its survival on Capitol Hill.

Unfortunately, the strategy seems more likely to result in the termination of two key defense systems — the B-2 bomber and SDI — rather than secure for effective strategic defenses the decisive presidential commitment they so clearly need.

The idea is a straightforward one: The Bush White House and Pentagon have made a relatively concerted effort to obtain the funding required for the B-2 Stealth bomber. Over the past two years, this super-sophisticated, long-range cousin of the F-117A fighters that performed so magnificently in the war with Iraq has clearly emerged as the administration’s top strategic weapons priority — arguably, its highest priority in the defense budget, period.

It is not hard to understand why the B-2 is viewed by the president and his men as so vital to future U.S. security needs. This aircraft offers the real capability of projecting U.S. conventional or nuclear power anywhere in the globe within hours of a decision to do so. What is more, the B-2 can accomplish this feat with devastating accuracy, without having to rely on access to foreign bases and without putting more than a handful of American servicemen in harm’s way. The arguments for a system with such attributes have been immensely reinforced by the recent experience in the Gulf.

Considerations like these have prompted the administration — correctly in my view — to make congressional approval of the B-2 a preeminent objective. Last year, in the face of a concerted effort spearheaded by Reps. Ron Dellums, California Democrat, and John Kasich, Ohio Republican, to terminate procurement at 15 planes, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and their staffs made clear the administration’s commitment to a purchase of at least 75 B-2s. In the end, their singular fixation with the B-2’s survival paid off; the program lived to fight another day with funds for two aircraft and additional long-lead procurement money authorized and appropriated last year.

Unfortunately, no comparable administration commitment was expressed on an equally important defense program — one promising to protect the people of the United States and U.S. troops and allies overseas against the growing threat of ballistic missile attack. While Mr. Cheney has personally remained commendably resolute in the priority he has accorded SDI, neither Mr. Scowcroft nor the president has brought the full prestige and resources of his office to bear to safeguard this ambitious development effort from Congress’ budget ax.

Last year, in the absence of such presidential support, SDI was savaged while the B-2 survived. This year, the stage is apparently set for a repeat performance. Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, Wisconsin Democrat, steered through the House of Representatives an FY 1992-93 authorization bill that would bar further production of B-2 aircraft and eviscerate the scaled-down strategic defense program now known as the Global Protection Against Accidental and Limited Strikes system (GPALS). A $2 billion cut in funding, effective termination of work on the promising space-based Brilliant Pebbles interceptors and the transfer to the Army of responsibility for ground-based defenses would amount to the end of SDI.

For its part, the Bush administration has expressed its determination to veto this legislation if it comes to the president’s desk in its present form. That would appear to be good news for both the B-2 and the GPALS programs. Even so, the tilt toward the former and against the latter is unmistakable.

A few weeks ago, President Bush personally visited the Stealth technology display put on by the Air Force at Andrews Air Force Base for the purpose of underscoring his support for the B-2. By contrast, it has fallen to Mr. Cheney to convey to Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia, William Cohen of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana — who are promoting an alternative to GPALS that would, as a practical matter, drop out the space-based interceptors essential to its global reach and cost effectiveness — that the administration does not think much of their idea.

Once again confronted with the prospect that the Bush administration will sacrifice a minimalist strategic defense program like GPALS to preserve the B-2, some SDI supporters are threatening to switch sides on the latter — quite possibly providing the decisive margin needed to adopt the House language and kill the Stealth bomber program — unless the president and his team apply themselves equally to securing congressional approval of GPALS.

The upshot of such a move may well be that the United States fields neither a credible force of B-2s nor an effective defense against ballistic missile attack. The truth of the matter is that this country will require an effective manned bomber force irrespective of whether we have SDI. Indeed, the argument can reasonably be made that the need is greater if our present state of assured vulnerability to such attack is preserved. While having both GPALS and the B-2 is what we require, having neither is decidedly worse than having only the B-2.

This is not to say that members of Congress should refrain from trying to induce the president to bring to bear the kind of real political muscle on behalf of SDI that is in order — and that he is clearly capable of applying on behalf of other legislative priorities. Rather, it is simply to argue that other pressure points, such as the vote on Most Favored Nation Status for China, the Crime Bill and the like, should be exploited for this purpose.

A few months ago, Mr. Bush addressed Raytheon employees responsible for producing on a crash basis the Patriot missiles used so effectively in the Gulf war against attacking Iraqi Scud missiles. On that occasion, he said, "Thank God, when the missiles were flying, the people of Tel Aviv and Riyadh had something more than an abstract theory of deterrence to protect them." If the people of the United States are ever to have more than such an abstract theory of assured vulnerability to protect them against future ballistic missile threats, the president is going to have to get behind his own GPALS program. The leverage for getting him to do so — if any is needed — should be something other than the vital B-2, however.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the director of the Center for Security Policy.

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