WASHINGTON — The Pentagon Tuesday reassured senators that cutting $1.2 billion from the nation's missile defense budget wouldn't diminish the country's ability to defend against a rogue missile attack from North Korea or Iran.
North Korea is at least three years away from building a missile capable of reaching the United States, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. Existing U.S. missile defenses, based largely at Alaska's Fort Greely and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, are more than adequate to address future threats, Lynn said.
"This is an expandable system," Lynn said. "Should that threat expand, we would certainly want to consider expanding it. At the current time and into the immediate future, we think 30 silos and 44 missiles address the threat we face."
Lynn also said that "no final decisions have been made" about whether to proceed with a Bush administration plan to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, despite fierce objections from Russia, or whether to seek greater cooperation with Moscow to defend against a possible Iranian threat to Europe.
The Pentagon's stance, while unsurprising given the Obama administration's skepticism about the effectiveness of the missile defense program, was something of a blow to Alaska's effort to restore the money for additional missile silos at Fort Greely.
The proposed cuts would halt the construction of a 20-silo missile field and stop the purchase of new ground-based interceptors. There now are 16 interceptors deployed at Greely's two silo fields, with 10 more missiles scheduled for delivery. The Pentagon would continue to test and improve on the existing missile defense system, which critics have complained was deployed before it was proven to work.
Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat who's on the Armed Services Committee, continued to argue for maintaining the program, saying Tuesday that 40 percent of North Korea's nuclear testing has occurred since the United States announced plans to curtail its missile defense program.
The chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said after the hearing that he thinks it's more important to ensure the quality and capability of the existing missiles by keeping some out of them of the ground for testing and upgrades.
The Pentagon will still buy 44 interceptor missiles as planned, but it won't build the silos for them, Levin said. The Pentagon wants to see "operationally realistic" testing and to ensure that the missiles will work, Levin said.
Begich said Tuesday that he was concerned that the twice-yearly missile tests lawmakers were promised are on a nine-month schedule. Air Force Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, defended the altered schedule, citing the magnitude and cost of tests. And as the tests get more complicated, the time between the tests is longer.
Alaska officials have been hoping that a stronger and more frequent testing program would translate into more activity at the state-owned rocket launch facility in Kodiak. The facility has been used to simulate missile launches from Korea for interceptor test launches from Vandenberg.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Sarah Palin, all Republicans, have continued to make a case for a large missile defense budget that includes the additional missile silos in Alaska. Palin argued last month for the funding for the missile defense agency to be fully restored.
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