March 18, 2015 / 11:10 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. eyes Iran, North Korea missile threats, boosts testing tempo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, citing growing missile threats from North Korea and Iran, said on Wednesday the United States was carrying out increasingly realistic tests of missile defenses while beefing up cyber security.

MDA Director Navy Vice Admiral James Syring said North Korea has fielded hundreds of missiles that could reach U.S. forces based in South Korea and Japan, while Iran was stepping up work on more sophisticated missiles.

Both countries could achieve the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile as early as this year, he told a hearing of the defense subcommittee for the Senate Appropriations Committee.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the Pentagon has launched a major review of missile defense programs and capabilities after Navy and Army officials said budget cuts and rising threats around the world made the current strategy “unsustainable.”

On Wednesday, Army Lieutenant Colonel Joe Sowers said the review would be carried out by an office within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with an eye to matching forces against requirements.

He said demand for regional ballistic missile defense forces, like many other capabilities, clearly exceeded what the military services were able to provide.

Syring told the hearing the agency was carrying out more war games and exercises to prepare for possible missile attacks, while increasing the tempo and complexity of its testing, reducing costs and investing in new technologies.

“I believe we are turning the corner with our homeland defenses,” he told the subcommittee, which is considering the agency’s $8.1 billion budget request for fiscal 2016.

But he warned that resumption of budget caps in fiscal 2016 could jeopardize funding for two new programs, a redesigned warhead and a new long-range radar. He said both are urgently needed to improve the capabilities of the ground-based homeland defense system.

The cuts could also affect investment in new technologies, such as a laser system on an unmanned plane, which Syring said could find, track and destroy an enemy missile at much lower cost than the current system.

The agency said it plans 12 flight tests of various parts of the multi-layered system in fiscal 2015, after seven tests since October 2013. Seven more tests were planned in fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1.

Officials are also working with the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester and military commands that operate missile defense systems to ensure the ability to defend against escalating cyber attacks, Syring said.

He said the agency completed dozens of tests and inspections to improve cyber defenses of its weapons systems, guard against attacks by insiders and ensure that contractors and suppliers do a better job protecting their computer networks.

“We have seen too many instances where malicious cyber actors attempt to exfiltrate information from them, especially from their unclassified, commercial networks that have exposure to the Internet,” Syring told the subcommittee.

He gave no details, but said the agency was working with industry and federal law enforcement to track down attackers.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Dan Grebler and David Gregorio

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