March 19, 2015 / 8:10 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. missile defense agency warns of "jeopardy" from budget cuts

WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) - Further budget cuts would put the U.S. military’s ability to protect the United States in “serious jeopardy” at a time when Iran and North Korea are advancing their own missile programs, the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said on Thursday.

Vice Admiral James Syring told U.S. lawmakers that failure to lift budget caps in fiscal 2016 would force him to delay urgently needed steps aimed at improving the reliability of a system that top military leaders have already called “unsustainable” given growing threats and budget pressures.

Lawmakers estimate the agency could see an 18 percent cut in its proposed funding of $8.1 billion for fiscal 2016 if the budget caps are not lifted.

Syring said he would safeguard plans to build 14 more ground-based interceptors and missile defense projects underway in Europe. So any budget cuts would delay efforts to redesign the kill vehicle used on ground-based interceptors and a new long-range radar to help track enemy missiles.

That would affect Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Raytheon Co. The three companies are working jointly to redesign the kill vehicle, while Lockheed and Raytheon are competing for the new long-range discriminating radar.

Further cuts could also slow work on promising future technologies such as lasers and a space-based system that promised to sharply lower costs in the future, he said.

Syring told the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee that he saw some “opportunity” in a Nov. 5 memo from the top two officers in the Army and Navy, which urged a reassessment of the overall U.S. missile defense strategy.

In February, the Pentagon started a major review of missile defense capabilities.

Syring said new technologies were emerging to address missile threats in other ways. The current system aims to destroy missiles after launch.

Navy Admiral Bill Gortney, who heads U.S. Northern Command, said the Army and Navy were looking for “a broader range of options” than shooting a rocket with a rocket.

Army Lieutenant General David Mann, who heads the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, said the joint staff was looking at ways to improve tracking and detection of possible threats, as well as potential use of lasers and spaced-based systems to increase the “level of sophistication” in responding to threats.

He said the Pentagon’s latest budget proposal included $1.3 billion in funding for lasers and other “directed energy” weapons, both in the classified and unclassified budget.

Mann said the U.S. military also needed to increase cooperation and data-sharing with allies. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio)

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