Op-ed: Stop Eating the Seed Corn – The Growing Squeeze on Missile Defense R&D

Over the past fifteen years, missile defense has gone from an idea largely restricted by treaty, to a kind of infancy with initial defensive capability, to what now might be termed a kind of adolescence. Along the way, the combination of several trends has put the Missile Defense Agency budget under increasing but underappreciated strain.

Created in 2002, MDA is the third entity since 1984 to focus on the ballistic missile defense problem. Whereas its predecessors were restricted by the ABM Treaty and could do little more than focus on research and development , MDA was created with the express purpose of fielding defenses to defend the country and its armed forces. At the same time, R&D remains central to outpace ever-evolving missile threats, and thus rightly remains central to both the institutional and conceptual identity of missile defense.

As its programs have matured and become operational, MDA has acquired new “colors of money,” or roles and missions, over and above the former R&D focus. In particular, MDA’s budget has in the past decade come to include increased percentages of procurement, operations and maintenance (O&M), and foreign assistance to Israel, at levels well beyond those intended or anticipated at the agency’s creation.

The first element of budget strain is a reduced topline. Between 2007-2017, MDA’s budget has fallen by over 20 percent, especially deep cuts in 2006 and 2010. Within that falling topline has also been significant uncertainty and instability from year to year, which have a corrosive effect on planning. In nine of the last 13 years, for instance, MDA’s obligation authority has fallen short of the previous Future Year Defense Program projections.

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