Boeing Co officials on Tuesday mounted a defense of their missile defense programs, which are seen by analysts as vulnerable to cuts when the Pentagon unveils its fiscal 2010 budget in early May.
Mira Ricardel, vice president of business development for Boeing's missile defense systems division, told reporters Boeing had performed well on two flagship missile defense programs, and they had strong backing from some lawmakers.
But she and other Boeing officials acknowledged that the outlook for future funding for the two programs was uncertain, given the Pentagon's review of all major weapons programs as well as plans to build a new missile defense site in Europe.
"Everything is in play right now. We understand the risk here and how the world and the budget process works," said Mike Rinn, vice president and program director of Boeing's Airborne Laser program, which he conceded got off to a slow start and is about $4 billion over budget.
Riki Ellison, who heads the industry-supported Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said last month the White House asked the Pentagon to cut nearly $2 billion, or up to roughly 20 percent, from missile defense in its fiscal 2010 budget. The overall program totaled $9.4 billion in fiscal 2009.
Ricardel said it was premature to speculate about the impact on Boeing programs, noting that the Pentagon had not yet finalized its fiscal 2010 budget plan.
She said Boeing had calculated that just Boeing's Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program, which is designed to knock out long-range missiles that could be fired by North Korea or Iran, supported 55,000 direct and indirect jobs in 44 states and accounted for $2.7 billion in economic revenues.
"It's a reminder of the economic value that aerospace and defense jobs do bring to the economy. They also represent well-paying, clean industry jobs," she said.
Rinn said the Airborne Laser, a modified 747 being designed to zap ballistic missiles moments after liftoff, supported about 700 direct jobs, hundreds more in the government, and thousands of indirect jobs in the economy.
He said cutting the laser program would be a huge loss for the United States since the military was on the verge of a major technological breakthrough that would allow destruction of missiles and other targets at the speed of light.
Boeing had also funded its own studies that showed the laser could also be used, with some minor modifications, to fight surface-to-air missiles and aircraft, he said.
"We believe it ushers in a whole new era, much like stealth did a couple years back," he said, adding the country had also invested heavily in the technology to make fighter jets nearly invisible to enemy radar. "The payoff was huge," he said.
Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who heads the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, on Monday described the program as "the definition of insanity."
To which Rinn countered on Tuesday, "If the definition of insanity is breakthrough technology, then call me crazy."
Halting the laser program, which is expected to have its first shoot-down flight test in August or September, would mean the loss of the current US technological edge, Rinn said. "You would lose all that and have to start it back up again."
Both programs were flexible and could be adapted to face various threats, the Boeing executives said, noting that flexibility was a key test Pentagon officials were applying when deciding which weapons programs to continue or not.
Rinn said the Air Force was slated to buy seven lasers at an expected price of about $1 billion to $1.5 billion apiece. But he said his program was also reviewing ways to drive costs down and make the high-tech airplane more affordable.
He said the cost per shot to zap a missile using the laser would ultimately be "in the thousands of dollars" compared to millions of dollars for more traditional systems.