Wednesday, October 11, 2006

NOW They Want Missile Defense

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican head of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday urged the Bush administration to speed up funding for the Pentagon's missile defense project in response to North Korea's nuclear test.

California Rep. Duncan Hunter (news, bio, voting record) said lawmakers negotiating the Pentagon's fiscal 2007 budget had added $100 million for Aegis ballistic missile defense SM-3 interceptors and Aegis system development. More money and faster development of the missile-defense project are needed, he said.

"I recommend strongly that the executive branch submit to the Congress both a proposal that states what steps are necessary to accomplish such acceleration and a request to reprogram the necessary funds," Hunter said in a letter to President George W. Bush.

The Aegis combat system was developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. while the Standard Missile SM-3 interceptors were built by Raytheon Co.

"I also believe that the United States must take immediate steps to develop and deploy systems that are capable of addressing the full range of North Korean missile-based threats to the United States, our deployed forces and our allies," Hunter said.

On Monday, North Korea said it had conducted an underground nuclear test following years of diplomatic efforts to stop the communist country from joining the seven other declared nuclear weapons states.

Hunter, who heads the House panel that oversees Pentagon weapons, said North Korea's test also showed the importance for the United States of keeping an "optimal air defense capability" on the Korean peninsula to protect U.S. allies.

One Army missile defense system in development, Lockheed Martin's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), has proven it can hit enemy ballistic missiles and has been moved from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii, closer to North Korea, for testing, the program's project manager, Col. Charles Driessnack, said on Monday.

Officials said the move was made to take advantage of a bigger testing range in the Pacific and the program was not due to be put into operation until 2009. Still, Driessnack said THAAD was now positioned "where it could do an operation."

Last July, North Korea test-fired seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 that failed about 40 seconds after launch.