The U.S. House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday recommended a nearly 50 percent cut in funding for the development of conventionally armed, fast-strike weapons for the upcoming budget year.
If the panel's markup of the fiscal 2012 defense spending bill eventually makes its way into law, funds for the so-called "conventional prompt global-strike" effort would total $104.8 million, a significant drop from the Obama administration's $204.8 million request.
Under the effort, the Defense Department is developing a number of different attack-weapon technologies that could eventually be capable of hitting targets halfway around the world with less than an hour's notice.
Pentagon officials say a small number of these conventional arms are necessary as an alternative to using high-speed nuclear weapons in instances in which a surprise threat emerges thousands of miles away that must be struck rapidly, but where there are no U.S. aircraft or ships stationed nearby. This might include a North Korean ballistic missile being readied for launch or a terrorist leader spotted while on the move, Defense officials explain.
The first such system to be fielded could be an Air Force Conventional Strike Missile, which would initially launch like a ballistic missile but then be capable of maneuvering to target at speeds exceeding Mach 5.
An initial flight test of a key component of the missile -- a "hypersonic-technology vehicle" -- ended in failure in April 2010. A second airborne trial of the vehicle is slated for this August and a more advanced version is expected to undergo a flight test in fiscal 2012.
House panel members moved to enact the $100 million cutback in the program after searching for savings throughout the defense budget, a committee aide told Global Security Newswire on Wednesday. The funds were reallocated toward ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as to "more important, higher priority programs," the staffer said. The congressional aide spoke on condition of not being named, lacking authority to address the issue publicly.
A House Appropriations report on the new legislation did not offer an explanation for the reduction.
The draft decrease in global-strike funds is part of the committee's $530 billion appropriations measure for nonemergency defense spending in the coming fiscal year, which begins on October 1. The proposed package cuts $9 billion from President Obama's request, but offers a $17 billion increase over fiscal 2011 defense-budget figures.
The appropriations legislation is expected to go to a House floor vote as early as next week. It follows the chamber's action late last month to authorize 2012 defense expenditures. Typically, authorization bills deal with policy and programmatic matters, while appropriations legislation is necessary for the government to spend funds.
The House Armed Services Committee's defense authorization bill, which passed in a 322-96 floor vote on May 26, recommended a small decrease in conventional prompt global-strike funds.
Trimming $25 million from the administration's global-strike request, this House panel also issued a defense authorization report challenging the Pentagon's development strategy for the weapon systems.
House members lauded the Defense Department for the "innovation and scientific discovery" associated with developing the Conventional Strike Missile, but said they were "also concerned about pursuing a weaponized missile system, or any material development decision, before demonstrating that the technology is feasible."
Defense officials want the Air Force missile effort to undergo a critical design review in 2012, a crucial step toward putting the so-called "boost-glide" weapon through the paces of a full operational demonstration.
Bugs yet to be worked out in the cutting-edge technology effort include finding ways to prevent the weapon system from burning up as it zooms through the upper atmosphere, as well as developing a guidance system that can control the apparatus at such high speeds.
Surmounting such steep technical challenges is not expected to come cheap. Air Force officials have estimated that the cost to conduct two full demonstrations of the first non-nuclear global-strike missile could reach $500 million.
The price tag for procuring three Conventional Strike Missiles -- one to put on alert and another two for back-up -- could be as high as $300 million, according to Defense officials. The initial fielding date has slipped from 2015 to possibly as late as 2017, according to service officials.
Lawmakers last month raised the idea of finding cheaper and easier alternatives to the Conventional Strike Missile.
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