Republicans in Congress came out swinging against what they label as the Obama administration’s cuts to military spending in its new budget, specifically citing the threat North Korea’s missiles pose as a reason to preserve missile defense spending. A close read of the Pentagon’s weapon procurement plans, however, show an increase in spending to the missile defense programs most closely related to countering North Korea.
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) made headlines on Thursday when he inadvertently revealed a still secret Defense Intelligence Agency asessment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In one segment of the DIA’s assessment, which was mistakenly labeled as unclassified in the copy provided to Congress, the Pentagon spy agency determined North Korea “has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however, the reliability will be low.”
Lamborn defended the disclosure after the meeting, as he was worried that the Obama administration isn’t doing enough to fund missile defense:
“My whole goal in bringing this to light was to make sure we don’t cut missile defense spending,” the congressman said. “At the worst possible time, the President’s budget does exactly that.”
Republicans like Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) also seized on the North Korean crisis to attack the Obama administration’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget on Friday — despite the fact that baseline spending is actually up by $1 billion. And while missile defense spending is cut $550 million in the President’s proposal, those cuts are primarily due to cancelling the Medium Extended Air Defense System, which the Pentagon has said it doesn’t want. In fact, Lamborn’s specific worry so far as it relates to North Korea is concerned is demonstrably false.
According to the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)’s FY 2014 Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System, requested spending for the programs related to protecting against North Korea has actually increased. The Department of Defense request for the AEGIS ballistic missile defense system was $1.51 billion, higher than the FY13 request of $1.38 billion. Likewise, funding for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system was bumped up to $850 million, an increase of $72.3 million dollars from the FY13 request. The well-known PATRIOT air and missile defense system was also slated for an increase in funding to finance an upgrade, at the rate of $609 million more than last year’s request.
Contrary to the Republican congressmen’s hand-wringing, the Obama administration has done anything but cut missile defense spending related to North Korea since the crisis began earlier this year. Since March alone, the Pentagon has ordered not one, but two ships equipped with missile defense technology to patrol the Korean peninsula’s coasts. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also announced the revival of a battery of interceptors based in Alaska, as well as adding new sets to California, providing additional defense to the United States’ West Coast, at the cost of around $1 billion. Deployment of the THAAD system to Guam was ordered ahead of schedule as well, highlighting the gravity the Obama administration has given the situation.
What remains up for debate, however, is just how reliable these various systems are against ballistic missiles. The THAAD program’s ability to target medium- and long-range missiles has been questioned and even the highly successful AEGIS system only boasts an 82 percent success rate. In any event, the threat that North Korea’s missiles pose to the mainland United States remains questionable at best, given the large number of failed tests its intercontinental ballistic missile program has seen.
Likewise, DIA’s assessment surrounding Pyongyang’s state of nuclear technology remains the conclusion of just one intelligence agency and one with “moderate confidence” in the finding at that. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Thursday made that clear in a statement, saying “the statement read by [Lamborn] is not an Intelligence Community assessment.”