WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats are taking a closer look at the U.S., partly in an effort to pare down its high price tag.
The Democrats are raising questions about the effectiveness of the anti-missile program and investigating whether its testing regimen is realistic enough to demonstrate its capabilities against real attacks. Critics have long contended that the program’s tests are too predictable.
The scrutiny comes as the United States is at a sensitive moment in negotiations withand the to build part of its shield on their territory. Lawmakers are questioning the security value of those plans against stark opposition from .
said he intends, during hearings beginning Wednesday, to raise the question of whether Congress should continue present funding levels for what congressional auditors call the most expensive U.S. defense program.
“We should explore the idea of slowing the funding on this thing until we know it is going in the right direction,” said Tierney, D-Mass., a longtime skeptic of missile defense. He chairs a subcommittee of the House Oversight andthat is planning to hold three to five hearings on the subject.
A spokesman for the Defense Department’s, Rick Lehner, said that scrutiny is nothing new and the agency welcomes the opportunity to provide testimony by top officials, including its chief, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering III.
“We meet with lawmakers and staff almost every week,” Lehner says. “This is probably the most scrutinized program within the Department of Defense.”
Advocates of missile defense argue that the shield is necessary to counter the power that countries likeand would have to threaten the United States and its allies should they develop long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear, biological or chemical warheads.
Some have pointed to the recent use of modified missile defense interceptors to destroy a damaged U.S. satellite as a sign of the program’s progress, although U.S. officials denied the interception was a test and critics say the satellite was a far easier target than a warhead would be.
Tierney’s first hearing on Wednesday will look at the threat the United States and allies face from ballistic missiles. A second hearing in early March is aimed at evaluating the costs of the program.
Tierney said he hopes to touch on U.S. plans to install a radar system in theand 10 interceptors in as part of the system intended to extend the shield to .
Those plans have been a source of intense friction with, which opposes the move to base the radar and interceptors so close to its borders and contends the move is aimed at undermining the deterrent from its nuclear arsenal. It has even threatened to target missiles on Poland if the plan is put into force.
The United States insists the European shield is aimed at countering threats from countries it considers rogues, like Iran and North Korea.
“You could look into what are you doing in the Czech Republic and Poland,” said Tierney. “Why we are having a big international spitfire on an issue that isn’t appropriately tested?”
Congressional Democrats so far have withheld a small amount of the money requested from the Bush administration for the construction of the Polish site and have said they will not provide it until the Czech and Polish governments approve the plan.
The Czech government appears close to allowing the radar array, but talks with the Polish government are hung up over demands fromfor more help in modernizing its military.
Thecould touch on the in Europe in a hearing planned for early April. The committee also intends to question about delays in some of its programs and cost overruns.