North Korea’s failed rocket launch last week underscores the need for the United States to rethink missile defense spending, according to some lawmakers and arms control advocates.
Others, though, say that Pyongyang’s continued efforts to strengthen its ballistic missile capabilities proves the U.S. defenses should receive even more money.
The United States’s principal domestic defense against a long-range ballistic missile strike is justified primarily by a perceived threat from North Korea, observers note. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense program today is comprised of 30 land-based interceptors in California and Alaska that are designed to intercept missiles outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
In January 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believed North Korea could develop a missile capable of reaching the United States within five years. North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to launch such an attack, however, and the most recent failure on Friday -- when a rocket purportedly intended to carry a satellite into space broke apart shortly after liftoff -- suggests Gates’s prediction may have been exaggerated, according to critics.
The U.S. defense system, meanwhile, has not been tested in two years and the two most recent attempts failed. Testifying before a House panel last month, the Missile Defense Agency chief, Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, said his organization would postpone reattempting a flight test carried out in December 2010, when an interceptor failed to hit an incoming dummy warhead.
In a statement to Global Security Newswire, Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said the failed North Korean launch on Friday was the latest indication that Congress must increase scrutiny over the U.S. missile defense program.
“Billions and billions of dollars continue to be spent on ballistic missile defense, yet the system still hasn’t been fully or realistically tested to demonstrate its actual capabilities,” said Tierney, the top Democrat on the House Oversight National Security Subcommittee. “I believe -- and independent experts agree -- that it is long past time for Congress to reconsider its approach to funding ballistic missile defense.”
Tierney, who held hearings on the issue when Democrats controlled the House, said he would “keep pressing the issue.”
The Obama administration in its fiscal 2013 budget request is proposing some cuts to missile defense spending as part of broader efforts to rein in government deficits. It is asking Congress for $9.7 billion for antimissile activities, which would represent a cut of $700 million, or 6.7 percent, from the current fiscal cycle. Total allocations for the next five budgets would be $47.4 billion.
The fiscal 2013 request for the GMD program is $903 million, according to Missile Defense Agency spokesman Richard Lehner. In fiscal 2012, Congress appropriated approximately $1.2 billion for the program, on which about $38 billion in today’s dollars has been spent since the late 1980s.
Republicans, including presumed presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have said the proposed reductions call into question the Obama administration’s commitment to homeland security. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, argued last month that cutting funding would not address the problems with the program and that a “more aggressive testing process” is needed.
Turner told GSN on Tuesday that the North Korean launch demonstrated a continued commitment by Pyongyang to develop a missile capable of reaching the United States and that it would be “irresponsible” to “count on sustained failure” by the isolated nation. “I can’t imagine accepting someone’s incompetence as being a reason for delaying” U.S. missile defense development, Turner said.
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., suggested in a Friday statement that, if anything, the failed North Korean launch that morning demonstrated a need for more missile defense spending.
“It appears North Korea has continued to pursue its efforts to strike the American people, while at the same time President Obama has degraded U.S. national missile defense,” said McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “I call on the president to work with me and my committee to restore the investments in our national missile defenses as a prudent and necessary measure to protect the homeland.”
White House spokeswoman Erin Pelton declined to comment, deferring the matter to the Defense Department. Lehner, the MDA spokesman, also declined to comment on the issue, saying by e-mail that “Congress decides how much is spent on missile defense, not” the agency.