Lawmakers promise Pentagon a ‘lot of support’ for ballistic missile defense

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A reprogramming approved by the Senate and the House gives the Pentagon access to $440 million from unspent fiscal year 2017 dollars to buy more ground-based interceptors, sensors and ship-based antimissile systems.

WASHINGTON — In a year that has been marked by congressional paralysis it is remarkable that both the Senate and the House approved a $440 million funding boost for the Pentagon’s missile-defense program within a matter of weeks.

With North Korea threatening to strike the United States and allies with nuclear-armed missiles, this was not a budget action that Congress wanted to punt to next year. Frequent trips to Capitol Hill by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford also helped to expedite the process.

“I, for one, very much appreciate your regular briefings that you’ve had with this committee. I think they’ve been constructive,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, told Dunford Tuesday during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sullivan, a long-time proponent of missile defense programs, credited Dunford for helping to build consensus. He said the general’s outreach was instrumental in mobilizing bipartisan support for additional funding.

The reprogramming approved by the Senate and the House gives the Pentagon access to $440 million from unspent fiscal year 2017 dollars to buy more ground-based interceptors, sensors and ship-based antimissile systems.

The Pentagon sent a missile defense supplemental budget request to Congress in early August. The initial funding proposal submitted by the Trump administration in May had actually cut $300 million from missile defense program. The administration sought $7.8 billion for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, compared to $8.2 billion appropriated by Congress for 2017. The House and Senate versions of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act recommend $9.2 billion and $8.9 billion, respectively.

Just days after the administration unveiled its 2018 budget, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry said he was “astonished” that Trump would cut the missile defense account.

World events forced a shift in priorities. “It’s become apparent that the president and the two of you and others have been talking about how critical missile defense is as a key element of our strategy, not just dealing with North Korea, but rogue nations like Iran,” Sullivan told Dunford and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

“Missile defense is no longer a partisan issue. It’s being viewed very much as a bipartisan issue, and I think that’s important,” added the senator. “I think you’ll get a lot of support for what you want to be doing on missile defense. We just need to know exactly what you want to be doing to advance it in the near term.”

Mattis assured the committee that the Pentagon will seek more money for missile defense in the future. “You’ll notice that the budget for this has increased in the out years, and the years ahead,” said Mattis. “We’re optimistic we’ll get a budget by December that will help.”

Defense industry analyst Roman Schweizer, of Cowen Research, alerted investors that the increases likely will be a boon for Boeing, the prime contractor for the ground-based mid-course defense system, and its subcontractors Raytheon and Orbital ATK. The new funding also could be spent on the Lockheed Martin-made theater high-altitude area defense system and Patriot interceptor missiles. There could also be an increase for large land-based radars in Hawaii and Alaska.

During Dunford’s confirmation hearing last week for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he characterized North Korea as the greatest national security threat today, while Russia remains the overall greatest long-term military challenge, and China is likely to move up to become the greatest threat to the United States by 2025.

“This kind of statement clearly expresses our view that the need for increased defense spending will be a long-term trend, with Russia and China being high-end traditional peer threats for which the U.S. military will seek to modernize major technologies and systems,” Schweizer commented. “The crises with North Korea and Iran have elevated the nearer-term threat picture for DoD.”

Dunford said the Pentagon needs between 3 to 7 percent annual growth to build capabilities to offset Russia and China. Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass a 2018 budget and deep partisan divides remain on tax reforms and allocations of non-defense and defense discretionary spending.