WASHINGTON, March 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Missile Defense Agency saw its 2018 budget jump to its highest level on record at $11.5 billion in an appropriations bill on Thursday as the agency's head said he was exploring the use of armed drones to counteract North Korea.
The bill in the U.S. House of Representatives increases defense funding and gives the MDA a 40 percent lift, $3.3 billion more than its fiscal 2017 enacted level, amid rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear missile program.
The House approved a $1.3 trillion spending bill to fund federal agencies and avert a government shutdown ahead of a midnight Friday deadline.
The U.S. Senate has yet to vote on the bill.
The House appropriation would represent the MDA's biggest budget, according to Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The MDA is a unit of the U.S. Defense Department.
The bill helps to fund the expansion of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, a network of radars, anti-ballistic missiles and other equipment designed to protect the United States from intercontinental ballistic missiles.
At the same time, the bill would ramp up funding for the development and deployment of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, a warhead designed to intercept and destroy inbound missiles.
During a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Strategic Forces on Thursday, MDA head Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves said he was continuing to explore the use of UAVs, or drones, to shoot down missiles soon after they have been launched.
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, asked if it was a priority for the MDA to explore putting "an effective airborne net over the Korean peninsula with UAVs, both sensor platforms and armed platforms, in international waters that could potentially prevent North Korean missiles from ever getting off of the launching pad."
Greaves said it was a high priority but they were still developing the technology. Such an effort would call for the United States to continuously keep drones aloft within range of countries that threaten the U.S. with a potential ballistic missile attack.
Once a ballistic missile is launched towards U.S. territory, the drones would be in position to shoot it down after it blasts off during the missile's "boost phase" and before it exits the Earth's atmosphere. (Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; editing by Chris Sanders and Grant McCool)