WASHINGTON • Just when it looks like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may restart his ballistic missile testing programme, US President Donald Trump has proposed trimming the country's missile defence budget, as one set of deterrents is delayed by two years.
The Missile Defence Agency (MDA) - charged with developing, testing and fielding a ballistic missile defence system - will delay the expansion of the ground-based midcourse defence (GMD) system by two years because of a delay in the redesign of the Raytheon-made "kill vehicle" the system uses.
A "kill vehicle" pops off the top of the defending missile above the earth's atmosphere and seeks out and destroys the attacking missile's warhead.
The GMD is a network of radars and anti-ballistic missiles based in Alaska and California, and other equipment designed to protect the United States from intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
The expansion of the field of interceptors in Alaska from 44 ground-based interceptors, or GBIs, to 64 had originally been slated for completion in 2023. But the delay, due to technical issues and not connected to the cut in the agency's budget, means that the placement of the extra 20 interceptors will not be operational until 2025, the MDA said on Tuesday.
"The important thing is to get it right, and if we're going to build more GBIs, we want to put the best kill vehicle on the top of it," said Mr Tom Karako, a missile defence expert from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
At the same time, North Korea has been pushing ahead with its nuclear weapons programme after a summit meeting between Mr Kim and Mr Trump in Hanoi ended abruptly on Feb 28 without an agreement on denuclearisation.
The important thing is to get it right, and if we're going to build more GBIs, we want to put the best kill vehicle on the top of it.
MR TOM KARAKO, a missile defence expert from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to ground-based interceptors.
New activity has been detected at a North Korean ICBM plant, South Korean media said last Thursday, while Mr Trump said he would be "very disappointed" if Pyongyang rebuilt a rocket site.
Under the defence budget, the MDA saw its appropriation cut by US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) to US$9.4 billion. Mr Trump's smaller request for defence funding comes on the heels of a significant budget boost last year after several North Korean missile tests.
The MDA projected a budget of US$9.2 billion in 2021, and US$9.1 billion in 2022, continuing the trend of declining funding.
One Pentagon-wide effort in lasers that could be used to defeat missiles saw investment slow dramatically.
After nearly doubling just the MDA's budget for directed energy from US$109 million last year to US$224 million this year, the Pentagon as a whole plans to invest only US$235 million in the technology in fiscal 2020.
Among other proposals included in a recently published Missile Defence Review is one involving lasers mounted on drones - aimed at stopping missiles just after take-off in what is called the boost phase.
During this portion of the flight the missile is most vulnerable, flying at its slowest speed, easily detected by the heat from its engines and incapable of evading interceptors as it accelerates to break out of the earth's atmosphere.