WASHINGTON — Several senators are concerned with the Missile Defense Agency's disproportionately small research and development budget request in fiscal 2017 as the US tries to stay ahead of the intercontinental ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea and Iran.

But Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA's director, said the accounts are adequately funded to counter possible worldwide threats and are paced appropriately with the agency's plan to prove out novel or game-changing missile defense concepts in the near future.

During a Wednesday Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing, Chairman Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., raised his concern with the downward trend in research and development funding in the MDA budget. He noted the MDA's top line in fiscal 2008 was $8.8 billion and the president's budget request for fiscal 2017 is down to $7.5 billion, a 14 percent decrease over the 10-year period.

Moreover, MDA funding for research and development projects has decreased by 28 percent in the same period, Sessions said, adding the "rising share" of funding devoted to procurement, operations and support means "there's less funding available for advanced research."

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said during the same hearing that the rising threat from Iran and North Korea is making it "more and more important that we look at long-term solutions that are actual game changers like directed energy."

While he's focused on several near-term priorities such as improving the current homeland defense system and building a new discrimination radar in Alaska, Syring said that doesn't mean advanced research is taking a back seat. Even when all near-term priorities are met, "there are gaps in the system still with radars, sensors, directed energy."

The agency is trying to "feed at a much lower level of funding," Syring said, "to go prove whether they are feasible or not and I think once we prove that, you will see a ramp up in the request for R&D if we can make a case that is feasible and affordable."

Syring said he's focused on several near-term programs begun in recent years, where crucial funding is devoted, and plans to field them in 2020.

The year 2020 is the sticking point, he explained, because it aligns with predictions of when North Korea could fully field its KN08 road-mobile ICBM with a miniaturized nuclear warhead.

North Korea has paraded around a modified road-mobile ICBM and has conducted rocket and ballistic missile launches in addition to the launch of the Taepo Dong 2 space launch vehicle in February.

Adm. Bill Gortney, leader of US Northern Command commander, said during Wednesday’s SASC hearing, risk of an attack by North Korea using such capability is currently low, but the US is prepared and ready to answer such an attack should it happen.

Despite that low risk, "it's only a matter of time before [North Korea] puts it together," Syring said at the same hearing. "That is why we watch test efforts so closely ... because although they haven't done an end-to-end test, which we would do, they may not be compelled to wait for that end-to-end test."

Taepo Dong 2's last flight test at the end of 2012 and then re-validated in February, "I think underscores the importance of not just the [Ground-based Midcourse Defense] GMD system but the [Long Range Discrimination Radar] LRDR," Syring said at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

"If [Kim Jong-Un] tests and then improves capability to make this even more complex in the future with decoys and countermeasures, we need the radar in Alaska to help defeat that threat," he said.

Syring added, "Timing is key to construction and development of the Long Range Discrimination Radar. It's the key part along with the [Redesigned Kill Vehicle of our strategy of improvement by 2020."

The MDA's 2020 Goals

The AObama administration made a decision in 2013 to pivot back to investing in the GMD system, which protects the homeland from North Korea and Iran specifically. The system consists of Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) buried in the ground at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The GMD system struggled in tests because it was rushed into the ground due to threat projections. In order to improve the interceptors reliability and capability, the MDA was tasked to invest in the effort in earnest in recent years.

Another MDA priority, aside from the GMD improvement effort, is to develop the capability to better discriminate between actual incoming missiles, decoys and space junk. The MDA is preparing to build its LRDR at Clear Air Force Station, Alaska, to do just that. The LRDR is expected to be operational by 2020.

The Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) — the part of the GBI responsible for taking out an incoming threat — is also going to be redesigned. The Redesigned Kill Vehicle is meant to improve reliability of the EKV. The RKV's first flight will be in 2018 and its first intercept test in 2020. Initial deliveries are slated in the 2020 time frame.

Game-Changers of the Future

The MDA has no plans to stop at the improvements scheduled to come online in the near term, Syring stressed.

The director asked the senators this week, as he made the rounds at hearings, for full support for funding previously cut to directed energy development efforts within the agency.

"Today we are focused on directed energy, which I believe is a potential game changer. Our work on laser scaling to achieve greater efficiency and lighter-weight will enable a low-power laser demonstration in 2021 to determine the feasibility of destroying enemy missiles in the boost phase of flight," Syring said.

The demonstration laser would likely fall in the 100-kilowatt range, Syring noted. It will be tested "at altitude to prove the coherency and the physics part of the problem … and to see if there is a feasible material solution for boost phase intercept. Syring said the cost to demonstrate the prototype would be about $278 million.

The MDA's long-term goal is to deploy lasers on high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial vehicles to take out ICBMs in the boost phase of flight.

The agency is requesting $71.8 million in 2017 to continue development of its high-powered directed energy program to build a foundation to get to what it's calling a next-generation UAV-borne laser system. Also in 2017, the MDA will award contracts to mature technology.

The MDA also wants $71.5 million for the next kill vehicle beyond the RKV — the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle. Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed were awarded contracts to design concepts to deploy multiple kill vehicles using a single booster.

The next 12 months is "very important" for the MOKV, Syring noted, as contractors work to develop designs and test technology that could be feasible. Once that happens, then R&D requests will go up, he added.

"This is not the end. I do see R&D requests in the future of MDA ramping up once on the point of proposing mature concepts that I know we'll deliver on time and with the budget we have. It's a shift for us," Syring said.

As program executors, Syring said, "we must be very careful about just throwing money at the problem and must be very deliberate on maturity of the technology and the progression of the system engineering and the architecture and the component testing and analysis that supports a program before I bring it forward and ask for billions of dollars."

Email: jjudson@defensenews.com

Twitter: @JenJudson

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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