12/30/2012 01:47 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2013

Sequestration, Obama Budget Cuts Threaten Much-Needed Missile Defense

British military historian John Keegan once said, "It's a necessary quality of a diplomat or a politician that he will compromise. Uncompromising politicians or diplomats get you into the most terrible trouble."

That may never have been truer than it is today, as Congress struggles to come up with a deal to avoid sending our country over the fiscal cliff at year's end.

It would be nice if Congress and the president would be inspired to take defense of the homeland more seriously.

Perhaps most concerning are the draconian defense "sequestration" cuts that are set to take effect January 2, 2013. The $500 billion reduction in military spending triggered by 2011's Budget Control Act would be added to the $487 billion the Obama administration already eliminated in this year's budget request.

For months, lawmakers have been warned of the potential economic impact of these indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts. A joint study between Dr. Stephen S. Fuller of George Mason University and Chmura Economics and Analytics showed that America could lose an estimated 2.14 million jobs if Congress does nothing to prevent the automatic sequestration cuts.

But the effects of sequestration -- on top of already reduced military spending on the president's watch -- extend well-beyond our fragile economy. Military brass and defense experts agree that such haphazard cuts would gut critical defense programs that protect this nation and our troops from harm.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said that "if additional efforts are made to go after the defense budget, I think it could have a serious impact in terms of our ability to implement" the Pentagon's stated defense strategy. This is especially true in light of significant cuts already imposed. As these cuts are beyond flesh and into the bone. Further cuts now are threatening to become reckless endangerment of the American people.

One urgent area of concern is missile defense, particularly in light of North Korea's successful long-range rocket test earlier this month. While the White House deemed the launch a "highly provocative act," it was a stark reminder of the importance of investing in defensive systems that can both deter attacks and protect us increasing threats from rogue nations.

Time and again our "Cold War" focused defense, diplomatic and intelligence apparatus and intelligentsia have been "surprised" by global events empowered by new social media. Witness Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya and tumult in Mali. One of the U.S. top defense and intelligence priorities is to prevent strategic surprise. And yet the collective political group think is to apparently allow these multiple layered cuts to happen. It is unconscionable.

An immediate problem is that our current missile defense budget is woefully inadequate. In total, the president lopped $3.6 billion off the projected budget for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) over the next 4 years. This is in addition to the $1.4 billion reduction for MDA from 2009 to 2013.

"I'm disappointed, very much, in the reductions to the missile defense budget over the last four years, much of which has come at the expense of our homeland defense as well as the development of next-generation missile defense systems," retiring Sen. Jon Kyl, a noted defense hawk, told a recent forum sponsored by the American Foreign Policy Council.

For example, the president's 2013 budget slashed the number of Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) -- our first line of defense against a long-range missile attack from North Korea -- from 44 interceptors to 30. A third GBI site along the East Coast continues to be a hot topic on Capitol Hill, but the potential for funding such a program appears dim considering we aren't properly supporting the sites we already have in Alaska and California. As Sen. Kyl aptly noted in his comments to AFPC, funding for GBIs has decreased from $2.5 billion annually under President Bush to only $1 billion under the Obama administration.

The next-generation Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) has also been a target of significant cuts, this despite two high-profile, successful tests of the interceptor this spring and summer.

Currently, the U.S. and Japanese navies are employing more than 130 first-generation SM-3s, but the upgraded missile, which is set to roll off production lines in 2015, offers enhanced capabilities to protect America and its allies.

MDA's original plan was to buy 62 SM-3 "I-Bs" but in his 2013 budget President Obama cut that number to a meager 29 and sliced the I-B budget in half. The timing could not be worse considering that commanders in the field are saying that our current inventories of SM-3s aboard Aegis ships are already insufficient. A recent classified STRATCOM exercise, reported by, confirmed the assertion of a ballistic missile shortfall.

Most significantly, these cuts to GBIs and SM-3s do not take into account the prospect of sequestration. In a letter to Congress last month, Panetta warned that sequestration would result in an additional "23 percent cut in weapons program would drive up unit costs and lead to reductions in quantity of one third or more."

While both Democrats and Republicans can agree that current budget deficits are unsustainable, shrinking the U.S. missile defense budget at a time when threats are exponentially increasing could prove pennywise but pound foolish. After all, North Korea is far from the only hostile nation on our radar. Iran and Syria remain aggressive, and the threat of Syria's weapons falling into the hands of jihadi-minded militias poses a very real threat to global security.

Avoiding such a fate will take real compromise from Congress and the president over the next few days. Without a deal to avoid even more severe cuts to defense, the American people may well be in "the most terrible trouble."

One thing that should be clear to the collective intelligentsia and politicians, strategic surprise will happen. The American people and our allies just don't deserve to have a North Korean or Iranian missile land on our heads because we failed to properly fund missile defense.

Randy Duncan is a retired Navy captain who served at the Defense Missile and Space Intelligence Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency.