By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional panel demanded on Thursday that European allies foot more of the bill for a multibillion-dollar shield being built to guard NATO members from missiles that might some day be able to carry nuclear warheads, notably from Iran.
The House of Representatives' Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee voted to hold back 25 percent of funds authorized for certain shield expenses until the NATO allies spell out their contributions.
The allies at a 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon welcomed the U.S.-built bulwark, dubbed by the White House the European Phased Adaptive Approach, as Washington's contribution to the alliance's missile defense.
The shield is a four-phase program designed chiefly to counter the perceived threat from Iran, which the West is pressing, through sanctions and other measures, to curb its nuclear program.
The measure is part of the Republican-led House's version of the 2013 defense authorization bill, which guides military policy and spending for the fiscal year that starts October 1. It was adopted by a unanimous vote during a 3-1/2 minute subcommittee session.
The bill must be meshed with the Democratic-led Senate's version before it can be sent to the president for signing into law. The Senate is expected to start crafting its bill next month. The administration's stance on the push for more European funding was not immediately clear.
Some of the allies have systems of their own that they may add to the collective defense, including Lockheed Martin Corp and Raytheon Co "Patriot" anti-missile batteries and land- and sea-based sensors.
Romania and Poland have agreed to host Standard Missile-3 interceptor sites on their soil. Turkey is hosting an advanced missile-defense radar and Spain is serving as home port for four destroyers equipped with Lockheed's "Aegis" ballistic missile-defense combat system.
Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner, a Republican, said in a guest column in Roll Call newspaper on Thursday that the United States can no longer afford, if it ever could, to pay for Europe's missile defense all by itself, "especially not if it means neglecting the missile defense of the American people."
FULL COST UNKNOWN
At issue, he said, was the system's "enormous" price at a time when the United States was obligated to reduced its budget deficit. The system's full cost is unknown, an Armed Services Committee document said, partly because there was no agreed definition on its elements.
The bill directs the administration to seek support from European countries through "pre-financing," a process by which NATO members providing capabilities to the 28-nation pact can be repaid.
Citing the "rising long-range missile threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran" and the push to complete the system by roughly 2020, the measure would give the U.S. president a waiver if he determined that the use of all authorized funding for the system were vital to national security.
The full bill would add funds for missile defense, warships and battle tanks among other hardware.
The measure also would require the Pentagon to undertake environmental impact and development work for a missile-defense site on the U.S. East Coast by 2015 to boost defenses against future Iranian long-range missiles.
It authorizes $100 million to start the job, which would add to the two current long-range missile defense sites, in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The current ground-based "midcourse" U.S. defense is managed by Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp.
The Obama administration is expected to oppose the East Coast site as unnecessary. Representative Loretta Sanchez of California, the subcommittee's top Democrat, questioned it in a statement and said she looked forward to an "informed debate" when the full committee takes up the bill on May 9.
The measure approved by the subcommittee also added $680 million from 2012 to 2015 for Israel's "Iron Dome" defense against short-range rockets and mortars.
(Editing by Eric Beech)