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Debate raging over what Obama will do

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, December 24, 2008) – Marshall Islands leaders expressed concern about job losses at Kwajalein missile range during U.S.-Marshall Islands defense talks earlier this month in Majuro.

But a bigger question for the Reagan Test Site is whether President-elect Barack Obama will dramatically reduce the level of missile defense work for this western Pacific base that has been the hub of America’s missile defense program since 1964. Added to this uncertainty is the increasing shift away from Kwajalein of U.S. missile defense tests, including a successful Vandenberg Air Force Base intercept of a missile shot from Kodiak, Alaska earlier this month.

The Army has already slashed the number of American and Marshallese employees at Kwajalein to levels unprecedented since the range opened more than 40 years ago. Both have been cut by about 40 percent from the early 2000s as part of a four-year "transformation" plan at the test site.

According to a briefing paper for the Obama campaign’s national security advisory team, a series of military issues are on the table for review, possibly signaling "a break with priorities of the last eight years." This paper identifies three high-profile weapons systems for cutbacks, including national missile defense — a core-testing program for the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein.

National missile defense — the ability to defend the United States from a large-scale nuclear attack — gained prominence in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan ramped up funding for its development. The program was dubbed "Star Wars" by the media.

With less than a month until Obama takes office, a debate is raging in the U.S. media over the future of missile defense. And while this debate is focused largely on a controversial U.S. missile defense base proposed for the Czech Republic (using a ground-based radar from the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein), and missile testing involving U.S. test facilities in Alaska and California, it has significant ramifications for Kwajalein.

Obama’s "Blueprint for Change" states that the Obama administration will support missile defense that is "pragmatic and cost-effective" and "does not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public."

"These statements," said officials from the conservative, pro-missile defense Heritage Foundation, "imply that ballistic missile defense programs are not a top priority and that missile defense technology is not proven. Neither is true."

The Heritage Foundation is making a strong pitch for Obama continuing support for missile defense. "The requirements of today's world demand a strategy to protect and defend the U.S. and its allies," said a paper released by the group earlier this month. "Ballistic missile defenses are an essential component of a protect-and-defend strategy for the 21st century."

But others disagree. "Despite the Bush administration’s investment of an estimated $60 billion since 2001, U.S. national missile defense continues to be an unnecessary and counterproductive enterprise," Lt. General (ret.) Robert Gard, who is chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, wrote in a paper published recently in Defense News.

"Testing objectives consistently are not met, cost overruns and scheduling delays are rampant, and relations between the U.S. and Russia are worse than at any time since the end of the Cold War, thanks in no small part to squabbling over the proposed third missile defense site in Europe."

But despite Gard’s objection to national missile defense, he is recommending a shift away from long-range missile defense to short-range testing to deal with the changed threat to the U.S. He points to the need to protect U.S. troops in battlefield situations, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, who face potential danger from Iranian short-range missiles as well as the need to address the developing N. Korean missile threat.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, who heads the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency, delivered a blunt "don't go wobbly on missile defense" message to Obama last week. Iran is expected to field a missile capable of hitting the United States by 2015, he said, and also warned of the need to answer the emerging China missile threat.

Kwajalein, meanwhile, is in the middle of a four-year funding cutback that has seen employment of Marshallese and Americans fall to their lowest levels in years.

The cutbacks have also coincided with the increasing use of the Pacific Missile Range at Kauai, Hawaii, the missile defense site in Alaska, and ocean-based vessels for testing missile defense. Despite this, U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Reagan Test Site to the U.S. — but it is clear that the U.S. has expanded its missile defense testing options so that Kwajalein is no longer the only available test site. Still, the Army is investing $100 million to install a new underwater fiber optic communications cable to Kwajalein and clearly sees a long-term future at Kwajalein, though the scope of the mission may change with the arrival of the Obama Administration.

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