The Pentagon plans to prioritize funding for the ground-based missile defense system being developed by Boeing Co., the second highest-ranking U.S. military officer said.
The governments of North Korea and Iran are trying to build intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S., according to Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And while neither country has yet achieved mature ICBM designs, the military must take the threats seriously, he said.
"The number of nations trying to achieve that capability is growing, not shrinking," he said during a speech on Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "A robust and capable national missile defense is our best bet to defend the United States from such an attack."
"That's why the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program is going to remain our first priority in missile defense," he added. "With a shrinking defense budget, this system will be accorded the highest priority within the missile defense share of our pie."
The Defense Department requested $1.6 billion for the system in fiscal 2016, beginning Oct. 1, a 60-percent increase from this year, according to budget documents. The additional funding, if approved by Congress, would be used to conduct more flight tests and redesign parts of the system.
It would also go toward upgrading and expanding the number of interceptors from 30 to 44, including an eventual 40 at the Army's Fort Greely in Alaska and four at the Air Force's Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Lawmakers in recent years have raised doubts about the technology, which hit targets in only 8 of 15 attempts through mid-July 2013; the high cost of testing, which runs more than $215 million per exercise; and the fact that many of the interceptors aren't operational.
Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, head of the Missile Defense Agency, has acknowledged the system faced a more demanding development schedule that resulted in interceptors being deployed before testing was complete. Indeed, when a three-stage booster launched from Vandenberg and intercepted a dummy warhead last summer, it was the first successful test in five years.
The interceptor featured a newer type of exoatmospheric kill vehicle, or EKV, which sat atop the interceptor and destroyed the projectile on impact. Boeing is the program's prime contractor; Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. builds the interceptor; and Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co. makes the kill vehicle.
"I was in the room watching it and you can imagine what it felt like to watch that thing have an extremely successful intercept," Winnefeld said. "It was a very good shot in the arm for that program. Based on the success of that shot, we were able to resume production of eight planned GBIs in the new and improved configuration," he said, referring to the Capability Enhancement II, or CE-II, design.
There are a total of eight improved CE-2 interceptors, Winnefeld said. A non-intercept flight is set for later this summer, he said. An intercept test involving a CE-2 Block 1 that incorporates obsolescent changes and a new booster avionics package is scheduled for the end of the year, he said.
"That's going to be our first intercept of a true ICBM-range target," he said of the latter. "Should that intercept be successful, the plan is to deliver 10 CE-2 Block 1 GBIs over the next year to achieve our goal of 44 GBIs by the end of 2017."