WASHINGTON (CN) – Citing “great concern” about the North Korean missile threat, top brass from the Missile Defense Agency appealed to the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday to approve its $7.9-billion budget request.
The ask includes $1.5 billion for the $40-billion ground-based midcourse defense system that successfully intercepted and destroyed a mock intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) high above the Pacific Ocean last week.
The request comes after a volley of North Korean missile tests and increasing worry about rapid advancements in the country’s missile program.
“The advancements in the last six months have caused great concern to me and others, in the advancement of and demonstration of technology of ballistic missiles from North Korea,” Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told the Subcommittee on Strategic Services.
“It is incumbent upon us to assume that North Korea today can range the United States with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead,” he added.
Republican chairman Mike Rogers of Alabama noted that since 2011 – when Kim Jong-un came to power – North Korea has conducted at least 78 missile tests, 60 of which were successful.
Syring suggested that continuous funding at the requested level still might not be enough.
“I would not say we are comfortably ahead of the threat,” Syring said. “I would say we are addressing the threat that we know today.”
In addition to conducting missile tests at “an alarming rate” over the last year, Syring says North Korea has also shown off technology that supports development of more capable and longer-range missiles.
The country’s military tested seven intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can fly more than 1,800 miles, along with submarine-launched ballistic missiles and their land-based counterparts.
“Most recently, North Korea conducted a near-simultaneous ballistic missile salvo launch of four missiles into the Sea of Japan and announced the units firing the missiles had the mission of targeting U.S. bases in Japan,” Syring said in his written testimony.
North Korea has claimed it is developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM that could reach the continental United States. Kim Jong-un has said the country’s missile programs are necessary to defend against perceived U.S. military threats.
Though Syring touted the success of the U.S.’s recent missile defense test, he discouraged the subcommittee from viewing it as a final step in the program’s success.
“We are not there yet,” he said, adding that concerns about reliability remain.
Setbacks have plagued the defense system over the years. Since 2004, it has sunk incoming missiles only 9 of 17 times – a 40 percent success rate.
The Pentagon fired the mock ICBM-class missile last Wednesday from a test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, while the Pentagon Missile Defense Agency launched the interceptor from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The interceptor launched about 10 minutes after the Pentagon let loose the mock ICBM, Syring said, hitting the incoming missile about 2,000 miles off the coast of California, north of the Hawaiian Islands.
According to Syring, the Missile Defense Agency believes the mock ICBM followed the same path that a North Korean missile headed toward the U.S. mainland would take.
Syring admitted he has no idea what message the successful test sent to the North Korean government.
“But I know what message it sends to the American people,” he said. “That we can defend them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”