12/16/2011 02:36 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012

Senate Hits the Mark on Missile Defense

The implications of Iran's growing bellicosity are increasingly more difficult for the United States. Recent weeks have seen the Islamic republic promise to project naval power by sending warships to the edge of America's territorial waters in the Atlantic and Tehran, more recently they announced that it has fitted its warships with their newest Qadar cruise missiles.

The backdrop for this escalation includes a captured U.S. drone aircraft being put on display by the Iranian regime, a reported failed attempt by Iran to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, and tense negotiations with the Russians over the potential disclosure and sharing of sensitive American missile information with Iran.

These developments point convincingly at the necessity for an affordable American missile defense system that meets the challenges of the 21st century, including Iran's military ambitions. But this challenge comes during an era of unsustainably high federal debt and the need to reduce the budget, including defense spending.

Last month, the so-called Super Committee of 12 Democrats and Republicans failed to identify the requisite $1.2 trillion in budget cuts, triggering mandatory reductions in spending, including $600 billion in defense spending, beginning in 2013.

The parochial nature of defense spending is undisciplined and it hurts our ability to balance our budgets and ensure a strong fighting force. A classic example, highlighted by veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, involves taxpayers supporting our military's 154 musical bands, while as former Defense Secretary Bob Gates noted, the Pentagon spends more on band members than the State Department does on Foreign Service Officers. A dysfunctional system, coupled with a presidential election year, means little can be predicted about how these mandatory cuts in Pentagon spending will manifest themselves.

But if recent events serve as a blueprint, Congress has some guidance in how it can achieve the necessary spending cuts without sacrificing the missile shield that is needed to protect our national security.

Our missile defense today is primarily accomplished by the Aegis weapons system, a sophisticated, sea-based platform that tracks, intercepts and destroys targets ranging from enemy warships and aircraft to cruise and ballistic missiles. The centerpiece of Aegis is the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3), which is also a critical component in the proposed land-based missile defense system for Europe. The missile currently in use, the SM-3 Block IA, is the first of four planned phases of increasingly complex and lethal missiles and systems to be developed, with a timeline for completion of all four phases extending into the next decade.

Given the current state of the federal budget, the question arises as to whether Congress should fund these futuristic SM-3 variants, designated Block IB, Block IIA and Block IIB. Thankfully, the Senate Appropriations Committee took action to zero-out the planned Block IIB funding earlier this fall, opting instead to apply those funds to production of the SM-3 Block IB in 2013 and the Block IIA five years later.

It's a smart move. America has always sought the best weapons to address future threats and we will continue to do so. But it's folly to focus on future systems at the expense of meeting the threats we currently face.

The SM-3 Block 1A and soon to be fielded Block IB version are the weapons we need to keep an increasingly aggressive Iran in check. And given that the Block IA program has exceeded expectations since being deployed, we can have confidence in the timely and on-budget production of the next two variants.

The Senate's move to reapportion SM-3 funding represents a win-win. It recognizes the immediate and growing threat posed by an increasingly hostile Iran while preserving the option of further advancing our strategic and tactical missile capabilities as future circumstances demand.