Trump's missile defense gap
Posted August 11
President Donald Trump on Thursday expressed disappointment with his administration's missile defense budget, pledging to ramp up spending on the military's efforts to intercept incoming missiles from North Korea and elsewhere by billions of dollars.
The President's comments on missile defense echoed one of the sharpest criticisms that congressional Republicans have had of the Trump administration's Pentagon budget request.
"We are going to be increasing our budget by many billions of dollars because of North Korea and other reasons having to do with the anti-missile," Trump said while taking questions at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. "As you know, we reduced it by 5%, but I've decided I don't want that. We are going to be increasing the anti-missiles by a substantial amount of billions of dollars."
Defense hawks on Capitol Hill accused the President of failing to live up to his promise to rebuild the military with his $603 billion defense budget, which they said was only a 3% increase above President Barack Obama's planned budget. The Trump administration argued it was a 10% increase over current spending.
But missile defense was a particular sore spot, as the Pentagon's request of $7.9 billion for the Missile Defense Agency in next year's budget was more than $300 million lower than what Congress had appropriated in the current budget, according to an analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"I think the biggest surprise to me was to look at the budget for the Missile Defense Agency and see that go down in '18 from what it is in '17. Can you explain that to me?" House armed services chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas asked Defense Secretary James Mattis at a June hearing.
Mattis told Thornberry that the Pentagon is currently undergoing a review of its ballistic missile defense programs, which could lead to a higher budget request for 2019. The Pentagon has argued that's the year it will really try to rebuild the military, with its current budget request more of a placeholder to give the new administration time for a strategy review.
"Sir, it's a worsening situation," Mattis told Thornberry. "We have a ballistic missile defense review underway, but right now I am confident that we have what it takes to secure us against the North Korean threat and buy us some time until we can get the review done and come to you with a defensible sustainable ballistic missile defense buildup."
But the congressional defense committees aren't waiting, as Thornberry's committee authorized $9.3 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, an additional $2.4 billion above Trump's budget request.
The Senate Armed Services Committee authorized $9 billion for missile defense, while the House Defense Appropriations Committee approved $8.6 billion, according to CSIS.
"I'm glad that the President has come to the table to join the House in calling for an increase to defense spending," Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner told CNN.
"The House already has put billions of dollars back into missile defense, having decided that Trump's cut to missile defense in the face of the North Korean threat was ill-advised," added Turner, a senior member of the House armed services committee.
The final spending total for missile defense will have to be reconciled with the Senate appropriations committee, which has not put together its defense spending bill yet.
Missile defense spending has been one of the most contentious fights over the Pentagon budget, as efforts to shoot down incoming missiles have a checkered track record. Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves told a conference in Huntsville, Alabama, this week he was confident the military could defend the US from North Korea's missile threat.
Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at CSIS, said Trump's budget request for missile defense was likely because the process was "a little on autopilot" during the transition, as the funding was effectively an extension of the Obama administration's budget.
Trump suggested a report on more funding for missile defense could be coming in the next week, which Karako said could be a sign that the Pentagon completed its preliminary study from its missile defense review.
"The bottom line is this is a signal to the folks on the Hill," Karako said. "Frankly, the President is pointing to what everybody kind of knows - it's got a lot of steam behind it."
Katherine Blakeley, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argued that the topline numbers were a little misleading, because Congress routinely adds funding each year for Israeli missile defense programs like Iron Dome and David's Sling.
She said the Trump budget request "adds funding for the homeland missile defense system, including the missile detection radars, improving the interceptor missiles, enhancing the sensors that find the incoming missiles in space, and boosting efforts to enable one interceptor to kill multiple incoming objects."
"The fiscal 2018 request continues the fiscal 2017 request funding profile, but looks like a cut because of Congress's additional appropriations," she said.