Reductions to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) 2007 budget request could hamper the military’s ability to keep pace with evolving threats, according to the agency’s top official.

Even rogue nations are making progress in developing increasingly sophisticated missiles that will challenge the defensive systems under development at the Pentagon, MDA director Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering told reporters after a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing May 10.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to mark up its version of the 2007 defense budget, and members of the defense subcommittee who were present at the May 10 hearing gave no indication that they would work to reduce MDA’s $9.3 billion budget request for 2007.

Three of the four senators present at the hearing have substantial missile defense programs in their home state: Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the chairman of the defense subcommittee, hosts the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System at Fort Greely; Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), hosts tests of the Aegis sea-based missile defense system; and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), hosts Redstone Arsenal, which today includes MDA and Army Space and Missile Defense Command offices and is intended to be the future headquarters for both organizations.

Stevens indicated that he was encouraged by Obering’s testimony about the status of various MDA programs, and that he also was pleased by recent efforts of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a non profit group led by former National Football League linebacker Riki Ellison that is dedicated to supporting missile defense research and deployment.

However, the House and Senate Armed Services committees have each cleared versions of that bill that would provide less money than MDA sought in its 2007 budget request . The full House voted to approve its version of the bill May 11 by a margin of 396-31.

Both committees explained their cuts to missile defense programs in the 2007 budget request as necessary to fund programs that promise more payoff in the near term.

Both Armed Services committees trimmed MDA’s request for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), a prototype high-speed rocket capable of knocking down enemy missiles in their boost phase.

MDA plans to demonstrate KEI’s booster during a 2008 demonstration that will help it decide whether to continue work on the program. Northrop Grumman Mission Systems of Reston, Va., is the prime contractor for the KEI effort.

The House Armed Services Committee recommended cutting $100 million from the KEI’s 2007 budget request of $406 million in its bill, H.R. 5122, while the Senate committee recommended cutting $200 million in S. 2766.

In his testimony before the Appropriations defense subcommittee, Obering did not specify the potential impact of the House cut, but he said that the Senate Armed Services Committee’s recommendation would delay the 2008 demonstration by a minimum of 18 months.

The agency would like to keep KEI on track, particularly given that it was conceived as a backup capability to the Airborne Laser, which also is planned to provide boost-phase defense but involves a high degree of risk, Obering said.

Even if the Airborne Laser, a modified 747 aircraft equipped with a high-power chemical laser that is under development by a team led by Boeing Co., is technically capable of shooting down a ballistic missile, it might not fit into the military’s operational concepts, he said. MDA plans the first intercept test of the Airborne Laser in 2008 as well.

The House bill trims $65 million from MDA’s $165 million budget request for the Multiple Kill Vehicle program, which is intended to develop a shotgun-like approach to destroying enemy missiles.

In a report accompanying the legislation, the House Armed Services Committee called the budget request for the program, which is under development by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., excessive given that MDA has yet to demonstrate an intercept with its current kill vehicle.

The Senate defense authorization bill fully funded the Multiple Kill Vehicle effort.

If the House cut is sustained, it could delay the program by at least 18 months, Obering said. Keeping the program on track is important, as it can help the Pentagon deal with the future threat of enemy missiles equipped with sophisticated decoys, Obering said.

The Multiple Kill Vehicle addresses this issue by deploying a batch of several small interceptors that can destroy the objects that are most likely to be an enemy warhead. The Pentagon plans to begin testing the system in 2009.

Another cut included in the House bill that does not appear in the Senate version affects the Pentagon’s plans for a European site for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System that would complement the existing locations in Alaska and California.

The House cut all of the $55.8 million request for studies that are intended to pave the way for the third site, with the report accompanying the bill stating that funding the European location was premature before the Pentagon demonstrates successful integrated testing at its current sites.

The House left untouched the $63 million for interceptors for the European site, and said that those rockets should instead be used in Alaska and California. If sustained, the $55.8 million cut would interfere with MDA’s ability to conduct the architectural and engineering studies needed to have the European site ready by 2011, Obering said.

A European site would give the Pentagon a good opportunity to shoot down missiles launched from the Middle East at the United States, as well as provide protection for U.S. allies, Obering said.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said in a May 8 interview that he would fight to keep the funding for the European site when the House and Senate meet to resolve the differences between the two bills later this year.

Sessions called the European site one of the most important issues in the authorization bill, and said that congressional support for the site is important to enabling the Pentagon to find the best location.