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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Missile Defense

Iran's Missile Program and Its Implications for U.S. Missile Defense


By Greg Thielmann
January 2013

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Although plans for expanding U.S. strategic missile defenses focus on the Iranian ICBM threat, that threat is not emerging as was previously predicted.  Iran conducted no long-range ballistic missile tests in 2012 and has not flown even the larger space launch vehicle that it displayed two years ago, which could have helped advance ICBM technology.  Moreover, Tehran has still not decided to build nuclear weapons and continues to focus on short- and medium-range rather than longer-range ballistic missiles.

It is, therefore, time to adapt U.S. missile defense plans accordingly by suspending the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach. Doing so would remove an obstacle to negotiating further reductions in the strategic forces of Russia - the only country that poses an unambiguous existential threat to the United States.


Although plans for expanding U.S. strategic missile defenses focus on the Iranian ICBM threat, that threat is not emerging as was previously predicted.  Iran conducted no long-range ballistic missile tests in 2012 and has not flown even the larger space launch vehicle that it displayed two years ago, which could have helped advance ICBM technology.  Moreover, Tehran has still not decided to build nuclear weapons and continues to focus on short- and medium-range rather than longer-range ballistic missiles.

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Back to the Drawing Board: The Need for Sound Science in U.S. Missile Defense

Philip E. Coyle

Clarification made online on February 13, 2013.

The technical core of the U.S. missile defense program is in tatters. Two heavyweight studies in the past 16 months have raised fundamental questions about the science underlying the program.

U.S. missile defense policy has long been controversial. The current U.S. approach has drawn criticism from some who say it is excessive and others who say it is insufficient. The findings of the two studies, however, transcend questions of policy and ideology because they show that the scientific basis for the program is weak. After decades of trying and at least $250 billion spent, the program is in many ways back to square one. This state of affairs has major implications for U.S. national security policy, defense spending, and U.S. relations with Russia, NATO, and allies in the Middle East and Asia.

The more recent of the two studies is “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense,” which was written by a committee under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and released last September.[1] Thirty-two months in the making, the NAS committee’s 260-page treatise focuses on the intractability of the problem of creating effective boost-phase missile defense—which involves intercepting a missile shortly after launch while its rocket motors are firing—as well as on the difficulties the United States has been having with missile defense in general. In the course of describing the obstacles to boost-phase missile defenses, the report is critical of some elements of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system currently deployed at Fort Greely in Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and of the European Phased Adaptive Approach being developed for deployment in Europe over the next decade. The purpose of the Alaska- and California-based GMD system ostensibly is to defend the U.S. homeland from intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack from Iran or North Korea, whereas the purpose of the phased adaptive approach ostensibly is to defend Europe from missile attack by Iran, but the Europe-based system also would include capabilities that would help defend the U.S. homeland from Iranian missile attack.

The NAS panel report, together with an equally important study written by a Defense Science Board (DSB) task force and released in September 2011,[2] leads to the conclusion that both the GMD system and the phased adaptive approach currently lack the basic elements for a viable architecture and, as a result, lack a viable concept of operations.

Both studies also discourage further spending on boost-phase missile defense, notwithstanding nearly 30 years of investment.

Boost-Phase Defense

The NAS committee report is all that decision leaders in Congress and in the Department of Defense should need to stop chasing impracticable boost-phase missile defense projects. The report put it succinctly: The department “should not invest any more money or resources in systems for boost-phase missile defense. Boost-phase missile defense is not practical or cost-effective under real-world conditions for the foreseeable future.”[3]

In agreement with the DSB task force report, the NAS panel’s study explains that all boost-phase intercept systems “suffer from severe reach-versus-time-available constraints.”[4] This means that the defense can run out of time before the enemy missiles are too far away to catch. Although both reports point out that boost-phase technology or its cousin, early-intercept, might be helpful in a crisis under certain circumstances, those situations should not cause policymakers to miss the central point that the time available for boost-phase missile defense can be too short for success.

The NAS panel echoes the conclusions of a 2004 study by the American Physical Society (APS)[5] and the findings of many other experts for years. Nevertheless, the U.S. policy process has kept alive the boost-phase concept and early intercept (intercept before the target reaches apogee).

For example, in a glossy August 2011 handout, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said it would achieve early-intercept capability against medium-range ballistic missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and ICBMs “from today’s regional threats by 2020 or sonner.”[6] One month later, however, the DSB task force concluded in its report that early-intercept capability is not itself “a useful objective for missile defense in general or for any particular missile defense system.”[7] The task force told the MDA that it was focusing on the wrong thing—early-intercept capability—and losing sight of the basic parameters that determine success or failure in missile defense.

It is remarkable that a Pentagon agency with an annual budget of $10 billion could go so wrong, promising an achievement within a few years that the task force described as “not realistically achievable under the most optimistic set of deployment, sensor capability, and missile technology assumptions.” The Pentagon’s own scientists had to point out how far the MDA had strayed from the basic physics of its systems; the NAS committee has now made the same point.

Midcourse Defense

The first meeting of the NAS panel was held in January 2010; the 15th and last meeting was in July 2011. Yet, because of a review by the MDA, the report was not released for another 14 months, a period almost as long as the time it took the panel to prepare the report.

Last April 30, while the MDA was carrying out its review of the panel report, the committee co-chairmen, L. David Montague and Walter B. Slocombe, provided a shortened version of the report in a letter to Reps. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.[8]

At a hearing of the subcommittee on March 6, when she already had learned the conclusions of the report, Sanchez asked Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, the director of the MDA, about the reliability and discrimination capabilities of U.S. missile defenses. O’Reilly pointed to the Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS) as the solution.

Yet the NAS panel’s study, already under review at the MDA, had described the PTSS as “a solution looking for a problem”[9] and recommended to Congress that it be canceled because it “is too far away from the threat to provide useful discrimination data, does not avoid the need for overhead persistent infrared cueing and is very expensive.”[10] Presumably, O’Reilly knew that the study had concluded that the PTSS should be terminated, but he made no mention of that.

Only seven weeks later, in its April 30 letter summarizing its report, the NAS committee was even more blunt, saying that it “finds no valid justification” for pursuing development of the PTSS and “recommends terminating all effort on it.”[11]

Other technical approaches have been proposed for the task of warning the missile defense system interceptors about incoming enemy missiles. One example is the Airborne Infrared (ABIR) system, which is composed of drones, each with a suite of sensors looking up to spot enemy missiles. The DSB task force said the ABIR concept, “although potentially promising as a component that would fit in well with a variety of missile defense architectures and regional situations, is in early development and not ready for inclusion in near-term plans for [phased adaptive approach] architectures.”[12]

The task force pointed out that the technical challenges for the ABIR system “include achieving highly accurate angular accuracy for the sensor as well as packaging (e.g. form factor) to employ on an operational (unmanned) air platform.”[13] This means that the physical orientation of the sensors onboard an unmanned aerial vehicle must be highly precise while tracking the target in flight despite the motion of the platform carrying those sensors. That may explain why the House and Senate appropriations committees zeroed out the ABIR system in their respective versions of fiscal year 2013 funding bills.

Another important missile defense system is the SPY-1 air and missile defense radar carried on all Navy ships equipped with the Aegis system. Four different versions of the SPY-1 are currently deployed on Navy ships. According to the DSB task force report, however, “The current Aegis shipboard radar is inadequate to support the objective needs” of the European Phased Adaptive Approach mission.[14]

Calling attention to the need for better missile defense radars on land and sea, the DSB added that, “[f]or this reason, the TPY-2 land-based radars and the future Navy ship-based Air and Missile Defense Radar…upgrade become critical components of the European defense scenarios.”[15]

The NAS committee supported the DSB task force’s view on the limitations of the SPY-1 radar in a press conference held on September 11, 2012, when Montague explained that the SPY-1 radar was not sufficiently powerful for missile tracking in the European deployment.[16]

Cancellation of Final Phase

The NAS committee recommended canceling the fourth phase of the phased adaptive approach. This phase, scheduled to be deployed in the 2020 time frame, is to be the last and the most technologically advanced, with enhanced capability to defend against potentially longer-range ballistic missiles from Iran, including ICBMs that could reach the United States. This phase, however, is also the most difficult and may not be achievable by 2020 or even much later.

New Expenses for Missile Defense

The recommendations of reports by a National Academy of Sciences committee and a Defense Science Board task force would add large but unknown costs to U.S. missile defense programs. The approaches that the studies recommend would require the consideration of whether new defense spending is sensible on at least the following:

  • A new East Coast missile defense site, perhaps at Fort Drum, New York, or in Maine. As at Fort Greely, Alaska, this new site would require silos from which interceptors could be launched; the supporting infrastructure of command, control, and communications systems; and physical protection.
  • A possible fourth site near Grand Forks, North Dakota.
  • New, smaller two-stage interceptors for the East Coast site that are faster than the existing three-stage, ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Fort Greely.
  • More of those new interceptors to replace the existing GBI missiles at Fort Greely and Vandenberg, and construction of silos in a new missile field at Fort Greely.
  • Development of a new exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV)—the part of the interceptor system that would seek out and destroy the incoming missiles—carried on the nose of the interceptor, with far better sensors for tracking and hitting the target. Such an EKV would be more capable and likely heavier than the existing EKV on the existing GBI missiles.
  • The development of a new X-band radar system, roughly twice as big as the existing AN/TPY-2 radar and mounted on a turntable. These modifications would allow it to see further and in more than one direction.
  • Deployment of this new radar at five locations, namely, Fylingdales, United Kingdom; Thule, Greenland; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Clear, Alaska.
  • Permanent deployment of the Sea-Based X-Band Radar at Adak, Alaska, with technical improvements so that the radar can withstand the high winds at Adak.
  • Development of new, more powerful radars to replace the SPY-1 radars on Navy Aegis ships.
  • Development of an Airborne Infrared Surveillance system, not to be confused with the Airborne Infrared (ABIR) system. Although such a surveillance system would be flown on drones like the ABIR system, it would need to provide better targeting information than would be available from the ABIR system as currently defined or from satellites or radar alone.
  • Development of a space satellite system that is some combination of the Space-Based Infrared System and the Space Tracking and Surveillance System to replace the aging Defense Support Program satellites.

The currently defined version of the fourth phase “is not necessary for theater defense and is at best less than optimal for homeland defense,” the committee said in its report. If the first three phases are fully implemented, the additional interceptor capability of the fourth phase “is not required for European (or other theater) defense,” the panel added.[17]

Canceling the fourth phase might help Russia and the United States reach an accommodation over U.S. missile defenses in Europe. The cancellation would eliminate the need for a high-speed interceptor, the Standard Missile-3 Block IIB. Under current plans, that interceptor would be deployed in 2021 in Poland, where it could threaten Russia’s ICBM fleet. According to the NAS committee, such an interceptor would be able to intercept Russian ICBMs launched from bases in southwestern Russia at targets in the eastern United States.[18] For this reason, the fourth phase has been the most contentious part of the phased adaptive approach from the point of view of Russian military and political leaders.

The committee’s recommendation to deploy interceptors at a new East Coast site effectively moves the fourth-phase interceptors out of Europe and replaces them with interceptors on U.S. soil. This would broaden the “battle space,” providing earlier opportunities for intercepts and for multiple attempts at intercepts, but requires the development of a new, faster booster with better target discrimination capabilities than the existing GMD interceptors now deployed in Alaska and California. A new East Coast site would cost billions of dollars more when President Barack Obama and Congress are trying to reduce federal spending, and it presumes that a solution can be found to the age-old problem of distinguishing actual targets from debris, decoys, or countermeasures. “Moreover,” the panel notes, “it finesses the issue of large interceptors close to Russian territory.”[19]

Debris and Decoys

With respect to the need to deal with decoys and countermeasures, the NAS committee wrote that “[t]here is no effective ballistic missile area defense that does not require dealing with midcourse discrimination (or shooting at all potential threat objects!).”[20] “Moreover,” the panel wrote in its April 30 letter to Congress, “early intercept, even if achievable from a forward-based interceptor system, cannot obviate the need for midcourse discrimination, because countermeasures and payload deployment can be achieved very rapidly (as historical experience shows) after threat booster burnout.”[21]

The DSB task force made a similar point about the need to discriminate real targets from debris and decoys: “If the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating.”[22]

Because of the inability to discriminate real targets from debris, decoys, or both and because of the poor record of successful intercepts in tests, especially by the GMD system, the reports from the NAS committee and the DSB task force recommend a “shoot-look-shoot” strategy. This means shooting several times at the same object and looking at it between shots to see if it has been destroyed.

Congressional testimony on this matter by Defense Department officials has been reluctant but clear: the system might have to shoot at each object four or five times to have a reasonable chance of killing that object.[23] If the enemy launches 20, 30, or 50 missiles in a salvo, that could consume hundreds of interceptors.

In battle, those repeated tries would take time. The NAS committee report includes a “Typical Mission Timeline” for a hypothetical four-shot, shoot-look-shoot scenario for intercepting a missile fired from the Middle East at the United States.[24] The first shot is an interceptor launched from Poland cued by an X-band radar in Azerbaijan. Russia has not agreed to a radar at that location, but perhaps Russia and the United States can reach an agreement on missile defense making that possible. That first shot occurs 190 seconds into the flight of the enemy missile.

A second shot from Poland takes place at 526 seconds, cued by a radar at the Fylingdales site in the United Kingdom. A third shot takes place at 772 seconds with an interceptor launched from a notional East Coast site in Caribou, Maine, again cued by the radar at Fylingdales. After each of the first three shots, the radar at Fylingdales performs a kill assessment. At 1,411 seconds, a fourth interceptor is launched from Caribou, once again cued from Fylingdales. At 1,692 seconds, a radar at Cape Cod performs the last kill assessment; and 358 seconds later, the enemy missile hits its target, if the enemy missile has not already been intercepted.

East Coast Site

This scenario demonstrates why the NAS panel recommended a new East Coast missile defense site in northern Maine or perhaps at Fort Drum, New York. According to the report, an East Coast site would provide time for more intercept attempts and for those attempts to occur sooner than would be possible from Fort Greely alone. In theory, successive shots from the East Coast site or Fort Greely would improve the odds.

The NAS committee also suggested a fourth site, perhaps near Grand Forks, North Dakota.[25] This fourth site is reminiscent of the old Safeguard missile defense system, which was developed in the late 1960s and briefly deployed near Grand Forks, with nuclear warheads on 100 interceptors. On October 2, 1975, Congress voted to shut down the Safeguard system after it had been fully operational for only one day because of concerns about the reliability of the system and its cost.[26]

Regardless of whether the new East Coast interceptors would be deployed at two, three, or four sites, the NAS committee’s proposal presumes that technology may be developed to permit the discrimination of real targets from debris, decoys, or both, something the NAS committee and the DSB task force say is essential but not currently in the cards.

The House Armed Services Committee quickly adopted the idea of an East Coast site. In its version of the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, the committee called for the site to be operational no later than December 31, 2015. The full House included this provision when it adopted the defense authorization bill, but the Senate did not.

The Defense Department has been clear that there is no requirement for a third site. In a letter to the congressional defense authorizers, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote that the House provision “is premature because the administration has not identified a requirement for a third U.S.-based missile defense site, nor assessed the feasibility or cost in a cost-constrained environment.”[27]

The House-Senate conference report on the defense authorization bill called for a study of at least three possible additional missile defense locations in the United States, with at least two of them on the East Coast. The report eliminated the House requirement for deployment by 2015. It also required that the MDA prepare an environmental impact statement for each site and a contingency plan to deploy such a site.

Added Costs

The budget implications of the NAS committee report are enormous and come at a time when defense spending is already under great pressure. Neither the Defense Department nor the Congressional Budget Office has released estimates of how much these additional elements would cost. They certainly would require annual expenditures of billions of dollars; beyond that, one can only extrapolate from the cost of similar systems that have already cost billions (see box, page 10).

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is pursuing two new regional missile defense systems, one in the Middle East and another in Asia. The costs of these systems also have not yet been determined.

The basic architectures of the phased adaptive approach and the GMD system are in doubt because so many of the parts do not work, do not exist, or are not achievable for the foreseeable future. Clearly, a major review and reconsideration is required of all elements of both arrangements. In particular, without a scientifically credible path to effective target discrimination, these projects lack the necessary foundation for a successful missile defense system.

Making sense of all this, sorting through which options might be promising enough to justify further spending and which should be terminated, will be a major challenge for the MDA because the NAS committee and the DSB task force do not agree on what should be done next. The task force study focuses on Europe and on having fast, dependable interceptors; long-range sensors; low-latency (quick-response) communications; and threat discrimination capability. The task force would deploy missile defense assets relatively close to the country possessing the missiles, at which the assets would be aimed as planned under the phased adaptive approach, and does not recommend a new East Coast site, let alone a fourth site near Grand Forks or a new GMD interceptor. It also does not recommend canceling the fourth phase of the phased adaptive approach.

The NAS committee focuses as well on fast, dependable interceptors; long-range sensors; low-latency communications; and threat discrimination capability, but deploys the recommended new interceptors at sites in the continental United States, not in Europe. It limits the scope of the phased adaptive approach.

Neither study comes to a clear conclusion about what should be done with ballistic missile defense sensors in space, and neither one explains how to achieve effective threat discrimination. (Neither study was chartered to conduct such analyses.) A serious study of target discrimination would be a worthwhile project for the NAS and the DSB.

Considering all this, the NAS committee probably should have chosen a different title, as “making sense of missile defense” requires answers to vital questions that were left unanswered, most notably how to achieve effective threat discrimination. The report provides insights, however, into the challenges for missile defense and explains them more clearly than has any document in the public domain since the 2004 APS study.

Expertise Needed at the MDA

The need to constitute a team of scientists with strong research and development capability at the MDA comes through as a top priority in the NAS committee report. The committee explains that the MDA simply could not provide briefings or papers that showed that the agency understood the issues involved and how to make the best scientific and technical choices.

The report said, “Discriminating between actual warheads and lightweight countermeasures has been a contentious issue for [ground-based] midcourse defense for more than 40 years.”[28] From the information that the MDA provided, “the committee learned very little that would help resolve the discrimination issue in the presence of sophisticated countermeasures. In fact, the committee had to seek out people who had put together the experiments” such as the Midcourse Space Experiment and the High-Altitude Observatory 2 “and who had understood and analyzed the data gathered. Their funding was terminated several years ago, ostensibly for budget reasons, and their expertise was lost.” Furthermore, when the committee asked the MDA to provide real signature data from all flight tests, the MDA “did not appear to know where to find them.”[29] Thus, the MDA no longer seems to have the expertise it needs to sort through the many difficult technical challenges that it faces, nor even a record of whom to ask for help.

Summarizing its frustration, the NAS panel concluded that the MDA “has given up trying and has terminated most of the optical signature analysis of flight data taken over the last 40 years. In the committee’s view, this is a serious mistake.”[30]

Without a strong, in-house scientific team, the MDA will not have adequate expertise to decide which path to follow. Private industry will help, but industry also has lost much of the scientific expertise it once had, and the MDA needs to have its own sustained and independent expertise.

As happened with the 2004 APS study, which was too soon forgotten, time has a way of eroding the public policy implications of a scientific study. To scientists, the basic physics is immutable. The public policy arena, however, has a way of discounting scientific findings over time as if to say that the underlying physics is somehow out of date, as if Sir Isaac Newton, watching that apple fall, was wrong about gravity.

In the public policy arena, the fact that someone believes that something such as boost-phase missile defense is viable under real-world conditions, even though for all practical purposes it is not, can be enough to keep it going. Hope and persistence are powerful forces in politics.

If the MDA pursues scientific dead ends and fails to give priority to target discrimination, the United States will continue to have missile defenses that are expensive pipe dreams, cobbled together from components that do not work together in a “system of systems,” failing to satisfy the intended mission.

Philip E. Coyle served from 2010 to 2011 as associate director for national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. From 1994 to 2001, he served as director of operational test and evaluation in the Department of Defense. He worked for 33 years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on a variety of high-technology programs. He currently is a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.


1. Committee on an Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives, National Research Council, “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense,” National Academy of Sciences, 2012, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13189 (hereinafter NAS committee report). The version of the report released at a September 11 press conference was in prepublication form. The citations in this article are to the final version.

2. Defense Science Board (DSB), “Task Force Report on Science and Technology Issues of Early Intercept Ballistic Missile Defense Feasibility,” September 2011, http://handle.dtic.mil/100.2/ADA552472 (hereinafter DSB task force report).

3. NAS committee report, p. 15.

4. Ibid.

5. David K. Barton et al., “Report of the American Physical Society Study Group on Boost-Phase Systems for National Missile Defense: Scientific and Technical Issues,” Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 76, No. 3 (October 4, 2004), http://rmp.aps.org/pdf/RMP/v76/i3/pS1_1.

6. Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Department of Defense, “Missile Defense Agency Program Update,” 11-MDA-6310, August 2011, p. 11, http://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/The_Missile_Defense_Program.pdf. Medium-range missiles are generally considered to have a range of between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometers. Intermediate-range missiles have a range of about 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers. Intercontinental-range missiles have a range of more than 5,500 kilometers.

7. DSB task force report, p. 33.

8. Letter to Representatives Michael R. Turner and Loretta Sanchez, House Armed Services Committee, from L. David Montague and Walter B. Slocombe, Committee on an Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives, April 30, 2012 (hereinafter NAS committee letter).

9. NAS committee report, p. 119.

10. NAS committee letter. “Overhead persistent cueing” refers to the need for a platform or set of platforms that operate around the clock and provide high-quality information on the launch and trajectory of the enemy target to the interceptor.

11. Ibid.

12. DSB task force report, p. 26.

13. Ibid., pp. 26-27.

14. Ibid., p. 26.

15. Ibid.

16. “The National Research Council Holds a Teleconference on Missile Defense Report,” CQ Transcriptions, September 11, 2012 (copy on file with author). Montague explained:

What the DSB said was the SPY-1 radar is not capable enough to do—support missile intercepts in—in European deployment, which we agree with. SPY-1 is not used for that purpose in the European deployment, a subject that apparently has escaped some people’s read here. The SPY-1 radar is used only for two things. One is to communicate with the interceptor, because the X-band radar is used for, what we call and what the MDA calls, engage on remote. That means all the data tracking data and information that is used to launch an interceptor is—comes from the X-band radar. All the SPY-1 in—in Aegis Ashore does is communicate back and forth with the interceptor.

17. NAS committee letter.

18. NAS committee report, p. 159.

19. Ibid., p. 127.

20. NAS committee letter.

21. Ibid.

22. DSB task force report, p. 27.

23. See Edward Aldridge Jr., Statement before the House Armed Services Committee, March 20, 2003, http://www.archive.org/stream/hearingsonnation2004unit/hearingsonnation2004unit_djvu.txt; Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, Statement before the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, April 30, 2008, http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-110hhrg48813/html/CHRG-110hhrg48813.htm.

24. NAS committee report, pp. 164-165 (table 5-3).

25. “The committee’s evolved GMD interceptor’s proposed design would use a smaller two-stage interceptor with a total burn time less than a third that of the existing [ground-based interceptor] carrying a larger[,] more capable [kill vehicle]. It would also require adding a third missile field site in the U.S. Northeast and a fourth site in the U.S. North Central states together with additional X-band radars to protect the eastern United States and Canada against Iranian threats.” Ibid., pp. 252-253.

26. For a history of U.S. missile defense systems, including the Safeguard system, see Richard Dean Burns, The Missile Defense Systems of George W. Bush: A Critical Assessment (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), pp. 20-30.

27. Letter to Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, House Armed Services Committee, from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, December 11, 2012, http://media.bloomberg.com/bb/avfile/rWfyBvrA3G1U.

28. NAS committee report, p. 131.

29. Ibid. The 1996 Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) was a highly successful demonstration of infrared and visible sensor technology in space to identify and track ballistic missiles during the midcourse of their flight trajectory. The High Altitude Observatory 2 (HALO-2) is a modified Gulfstream jet equipped with a variety of ultraviolet, infrared, and visible sensors to observe missile defense flight-intercept tests and collect information about the phenomenology of ballistic missiles in flight. The technology from the MSX and HALO-2 is of interest for improved target discrimination.

30. Ibid.




Clarification: The January/February 2013 article “Back to the Drawing Board: The Need for Sound Science in U.S. Missile Defense” implied that the report on missile defense by a National Academy of Sciences committee warned against the deployment of Standard Missile-3 Block IIB interceptors in Poland because of the capability of those missiles to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from southwestern Russia. In the passage that the article cited, the committee report was referring to the potential deployment of the proposed Ground-Based Midcourse Defense-Evolved interceptor.

The technical core of the U.S. missile defense program is in tatters. Two heavyweight studies in the past 16 months have raised fundamental questions about the science underlying the program.


Some See Chance for Missile Defense Deal

Tom Z. Collina

Discussions between Russia and the United States on how to resolve their differences over planned U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe, which have been on hold for more than a year as both countries held presidential elections, can now resume, opening the way for a possible deal on an issue that has blocked progress on strategic arms control, some former administration officials say.

The opening for renewed talks comes at a time when new reports on missile defense technology and the Iranian missile program may give President Barack Obama more room to maneuver, the former officials said in interviews with Arms Control Today.

Last March, Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate with Russia on missile defense policy after the November elections. The remark, which was picked up by a microphone that Obama apparently did not know was on, drew strong criticism from Republican lawmakers.

Just after the U.S. election, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said at a Nov. 8 Moscow conference on nonproliferation that he hoped Obama “will be more flexible” on his missile defense plans.

Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher said at a Dec. 18 event that, with the elections over, “we can begin to talk again.” Tauscher, who was the administration’s top negotiator in missile defense talks with Russia, did not indicate what the administration’s position might be.

But sharp differences in Congress on missile defense policy are seen as limiting the range of options available to the administration. “Obama has to find a sweet spot that reassures Moscow but does not overly alienate Senate Republicans,” one congressional staffer said, “and that will not be easy.”

Some Senate Republicans, including Bob Corker (Tenn.), who is set to become the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, had sought to prevent any limitations on U.S. missile defense plans as part of the debate on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in late 2010. They announced their support for New START only after Obama sent a letter to the Senate pledging that the treaty “places no limitations” on U.S. missile defense plans, and specifically promising to field all four phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the administration’s plan for deploying missile interceptors in Europe, depending on “advances of technology or future changes in the threat.” (See ACT, January/February 2011.)

Russia has objected to the latter phases of the planned deployment of missile interceptors in Europe, saying they could threaten its strategic missiles. Russian officials have said they will not take part in a new round of arms control negotiations unless the United States addresses its concerns. Obama is seeking a new treaty with Russia to reduce strategic, tactical, and reserve warheads and is finalizing new nuclear policy guidance to make those reductions possible. (See ACT, June 2011.)

In addition to a new arms reduction treaty, Obama has said on several occasions he will seek Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at some point. “Does Obama want these treaties or not?” the congressional staffer asked in a Dec. 18 interview, adding that Obama cannot break his missile defense promises to the Senate and still hope to win Republican support for these agreements.

Clashing Views

Moscow’s main concern with the Obama administration’s European missile defense plan centers on its latter phases, planned for 2018 and 2021, respectively, which Russia says would threaten its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in southwestern Russia. During these phases, the United States would deploy Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIA and IIB interceptors in Poland and Romania and possibly at sea (fig. 1). Russia has demanded legally binding assurances that U.S. interceptors would not target Russian ICBMs. It also has called for limitations on the speed, number, and location of these interceptors.

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The administration has rejected the Russian demands, in part because a legally binding agreement that included them would stand little chance of winning support from Senate Republicans. Instead, the administration has offered a political commitment, which is not legally binding and does not require Senate approval, not to direct U.S. missile interceptors against Russian strategic missiles and to cooperate with Russia by sharing early-warning information and flight test data. (See ACT, July/August 2011.)

Another factor for Moscow, according to Philip Coyle, who served from 2010 to 2011 as a senior official in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is U.S. plans to deploy interceptors in Poland specifically, which “bother Russia mightily.” The Russian concerns are “geopolitical,” he said, noting that U.S. long-range interceptors based in the United States, in Alaska and California, do not appear to concern Moscow nearly as much as the ones in central Europe.

As the basis for a possible compromise on missile defense, Coyle and other former officials point to a September report by a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee. (See ACT, October 2012.) That report found it would be more effective to address potential long-range missile threats to the United States from Iran by basing interceptors on the U.S. East Coast rather than in Europe. In effect, the panel’s recommendations would trade the fourth phase of the European system for a new deployment site in the United States.

At a Sept. 11 press conference releasing the NAS committee report, panel co-chairman David Montague, former president of the Missile Systems Division at Lockheed Martin, said that the fourth phase of the planned missile interceptor deployment “should be canceled” as “unnecessary for European defense” and “less than optimal for defense of the United States.” The report said that deployment of missiles with the capabilities planned for the fourth phase would “clearly exacerbate political tensions in the region.”

Instead of fielding the fourth phase in Europe, the NAS panel would deploy other, yet-to-be-developed interceptors on the U.S. East Coast. “With the interceptors on U.S. soil, it would be harder for Russia to object,” Coyle said. “There could be an interaction here between [missile defense deployments on] the East Coast and [in] Europe” in terms of reaching a deal, he said.

An administration official and missile defense supporters in Congress did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee and one of the most outspoken missile defense supporters in Congress, said in a letter to Obama last March that he would oppose any trade of U.S. missile defenses for Russian agreement to arms reductions. “My colleagues and I will not allow any attempts to trade missile defense,” he wrote.

Citing the NAS panel report, the House of Representatives passed legislation last year calling for the deployment of missile defenses on the East Coast by 2015. The NAS committee made clear that its proposed system would not be ready for operation until fiscal year 2019 at the earliest, at a cost of about $20 billion over 20 years. It also said that the system must be capable of distinguishing between real warheads and fake ones, a task that has proved insurmountable so far. The Senate bill had no similar language, and the administration opposed the House language.

As a compromise, the conference report to the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill, which Obama signed into law Jan. 2, directs the Defense Department to evaluate three new sites in the United States for missile interceptors, of which two must be on the East Coast, but does not require that interceptors be deployed at those sites.

An additional factor supporting a policy shift, the former officials say, is that Iran, the potential target for the Europe-based system, has been making slower progress than once anticipated toward having the capability to launch a workable ICBM. U.S. intelligence analysts had once predicted that Iran would achieve an ICBM capability by 2015, but a December report from the Congressional Research Service said Tehran’s ability to meet that target date “is increasingly uncertain,” in part because Iran is not receiving sufficient help from China and Russia.

In her Dec. 18 comments, Tauscher said the SM-3 IIB, the interceptor to be deployed in Europe during the fourth phase of the Obama administration’s plan, “only gets deployed if there is a rising threat” from Iran.

Missile defense advocates in Congress also have cited North Korean missile development efforts. North Korea’s Dec. 12 test of its Unha-3 rocket succeeded, for the first time, in putting a small satellite in orbit, a step forward for the program (see page 30). House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, issued a statement after the launch saying that North Korea’s actions “highlight the importance” of the United States deploying a “capable national missile defense program.”

However, Montague said at the Sept. 11 press conference that North Korea’s missile, even once fully developed, “can’t carry enough payload to be of any significant threat,” calling it “a baby satellite launcher and not a very good one at that.”

Russian Flexibility?

Some Russian analysts considered to be close to policymakers in Moscow are exploring options for their country’s missile defense policy. In a Nov. 30 article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a group that included Sergey Rogov, director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, and Viktor Yesin, former head of Russia’s strategic missile forces, wrote that the United States should not increase its defenses against ICBMs beyond the current capability of 30 interceptors on the West Coast. If missile threats from Iran and North Korea increase, they wrote, the United States “can deploy additional strategic interceptors [in the United States], but the total should not exceed 50-100.”

The Russian experts wrote that deployment of the SM-3 IIB in the fourth phase for the Europe-based system should be “frozen” because the deployment of 48 SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptors in Romania and Poland is sufficient for defending against existing and expected Iranian intermediate-range missiles. They did not call for a legally binding agreement with the United States to limit missile defenses, but instead suggested an executive agreement that does not require Senate approval.

Discussions between Russia and the United States on how to resolve their differences over planned U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe, which have been on hold for more than a year as both countries held presidential elections, can now resume, opening the way for a possible deal on an issue that has blocked progress on strategic arms control, some former administration officials say.

Indian Missile Defense Program Advances

Eric Auner

India is pressing ahead with its work on missile defense, conducting its latest successful test last November and preparing to test a new kind of interceptor early this year.

In its Nov. 23 announcement of the test earlier that day, India said it had demonstrated the ability to intercept multiple incoming missiles. The test, which was the latest in a series dating to 2006, follows several tests in 2012 of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, including the successful launch in April of the 5,000-kilometer-range Agni-5. (See ACT, May 2012.)

India also has tested the sea-launched version of the hypersonic Brahmos cruise missile, jointly developed with Russia. In addition, air- and submarine-launched versions of the Brahmos missile are in development.

Indian media reports suggest that a test of a new high-altitude anti-missile interceptor will occur in January and that India may soon test a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) for the first time, bringing the country closer to possessing a triad of nuclear weapons delivery systems. (See ACT, September 2012.)

India’s nuclear-armed neighbors, China and Pakistan, have significant cruise and ballistic missile capabilities. China has taken steps to acquire missile defense capabilities although Pakistan apparently has not attempted to do so. In the past, Pakistan has justified its pursuit of cruise missiles by citing their supposed invulnerability to Indian ballistic missile defenses. China possesses SLBMs, and China and Pakistan are able to deliver nuclear weapons by airplane.

The Chinese and Pakistani reaction to Indian missile defense developments is not yet clear, said Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “The new capabilities and counter-capabilities add to the already vexed issue of arms race[s] in Asia,” Rajagopalan, a former assistant director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat, said in a Dec. 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

In a Dec. 19 analysis for the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, where he is a senior fellow, Vivek Kapur, a group captain in the Indian air force, said that “ballistic missile proliferation in India’s neighbourhood requires the development of a more capable” missile defense system.

In the Nov. 23 press release, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Indian government entity responsible for developing offensive and defensive missile and other systems, said the Advanced Air Defence (AAD) interceptor destroyed a target missile, a modified Prithvi ballistic missile, at an altitude of 15 kilometers.

The interceptor and target missile were launched from sites in Orissa, a state in the eastern part of the country. In the press release, the DRDO said it had demonstrated an ability to track and destroy multiple incoming ballistic missiles.

Rajagopalan said India’s efforts are “primarily driven by the threat of short-range missiles in Pakistan”; Chinese missile threats “did not figure prominently in the Indian calculation for a missile defence shield,” she said.

The Pakistani government has not issued an official reaction to the AAD interceptor test. Pakistan, however, successfully tested a nuclear-capable Hatf-5, a 1,300-kilometer-range ballistic missile, on Nov. 28. A Pakistani statement following the test of the Hatf-5, also known as the Ghauri, did not mention India specifically, but said the test “strengthens and consolidates Pakistan’s deterrence capability.” According to the DRDO, the Nov. 23 AAD test demonstrated a capability to intercept ballistic missiles with a range of 1,500 kilometers.

Two-Tiered Defense

India is pursuing a two-tiered missile defense shield, which would give it multiple opportunities to intercept incoming missiles. The AAD interceptor comprises the lower tier, and the higher-altitude, two-stage Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) interceptor currently comprises the upper tier. Like the U.S. Patriot system, both of these Indian systems intercept ballistic missiles in the so-called terminal phase, in which the incoming missiles are descending toward their target.

India first tested the AAD interceptor in December 2007 and, according to the Indian government, has conducted several subsequent tests. India first tested the higher-altitude Prithvi interceptor in November 2006 and again in March 2009. The test reportedly planned for January is of the Prithvi Defence Vehicle, which would be capable of interceptions at a much higher altitude than the PAD interceptor, and may eventually replace that interceptor as the upper tier of the Indian system.

The Indian government has not announced the area that the missile defense system is designed to protect. Media reports have indicated that New Delhi and Mumbai will be the first sites, with the system expanded to protect additional cities later in the decade.

According to the DRDO press release, the AAD interceptor used an explosive warhead to destroy the target missile as the interceptor approached it. In contrast, most U.S. missile defense systems, including the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense and sea-based Aegis systems, rely on “hit-to-kill” interceptors that destroy a target solely through impact.

Eyeing Iron Dome

In addition to developing an anti-ballistic missile capability, India has expressed an interest in purchasing and perhaps producing a domestic variant of the Israeli Iron Dome anti-rocket system, according to the U.S.-based Defense News. The Israel Defense Forces claim Iron Dome successfully intercepted 84 percent of rockets fired at Israeli population centers last November during Operation Pillar of Defense, which was intended to halt rocket attacks from groups in Gaza.

In the past, India has expressed interest in purchasing the Israeli Arrow-2 ballistic missile defense system. New Delhi bought two Israeli Green Pine missile defense radars, used for tracking incoming ballistic missiles, in 2002 and 2005. The Swordfish Long Range Tracking Radar, which was used in the AAD test, is based in part on the Green Pine radar.

India and the United States pursued missile defense cooperation during the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, but such efforts have been less prominent under the Obama administration. Last July, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said India and the United States intend to discuss missile defense cooperation, calling it “an important future area for our cooperation.” India and the United States should discuss the issue “strategically before they discuss it technically,” he said.

India's defensive missile program continues to move forward with a successful launch at the end of last year and a test of a new interceptor planned for early this year.

East Coast Missile Defense? Just Say No, Again

By Tom Z. Collina The FY 2013 Defense Authorization Bill is on the Senate floor this week, and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is planning to offer an amendment that would promote the construction of a missile defense site on the East Coast. This was a bad idea when the House proposed it this summer, and it's a bad idea now. Sen. Ayotte borrowed this proposal from Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, which voted in May to build a third strategic missile interceptor site on the East Coast by the end of 2015. Sen. Ayotte can be congratulated for taking a more measured approach,...

U.S. Pushes Missile Defense Globally

Tom Z. Collina

The United States in recent months has taken steps to expand missile defense capabilities in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, with the declared goal of countering developing missile programs in North Korea and Iran.

China and Russia, however, say this expansion could eventually undermine the viability of their strategic forces, leading Moscow to resist U.S. calls for bilateral arms reductions and motivating China and Russia to build new weapons to counter planned defenses.

As part of its effort to shift defense resources to Asia, the United States is expanding missile defense cooperation with Japan and South Korea. The Pentagon announced in August that it would field a second missile-tracking X-band radar in Japan; the Defense Department deployed a similar radar at Shariki, in northern Japan, in 2006.

Japan has purchased the U.S. Aegis missile defense system, as well as Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IA interceptors, early-warning radars, and command and control systems. Japan and the United States are co-developing the SM-3 IIA missile, which would also be deployed in Europe.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met in Washington on Oct. 24 and agreed to continue to cooperate on missile defense and to “enhance the interoperability” of their command and control systems.

This partnership reportedly would include joint research on a “Korea Air and Missile Defense” system, involving a new radar and Standard Missile interceptors for Aegis-equipped destroyers deployed near Korea. Earlier in October, the United States agreed to let Seoul develop missiles having a payload of 500 kilograms with a range of up to 800 kilometers, up from a limit of 300 kilometers (see p. 22). Seoul officials say that South Korea will cooperate with the United States on regional defenses but not longer-range systems that might upset China, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Oct. 26.

According to an Aug. 23 Wall Street Journal story, U.S. officials have been evaluating sites in Southeast Asia for a third X-band radar, possibly in the Philippines, to create an “arc” that would allow the United States and its regional allies “to more accurately track any ballistic missiles launched from North Korea, as well as from parts of China.”

The U.S. X-band radars, know as AN/TPY-2s, could be networked with mobile missile interceptors deployed on U.S. Aegis-equipped ships at sea and with land-based interceptors in the region, according to experts. Panetta has said that such systems in Asia are intended to protect against missile threats from North Korea, which conducted a failed test of a long-range ballistic missile in April.

Some experts, however, say that China is also part of U.S. thinking. “In terms of missile defense, the U.S. talks about North Korea, but China is part of the long term outlook,” Steven Hildreth, a missile defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said in an Oct. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

The Chinese Ministry of National Defense responded to the August announcement of the plans for the radar in Japan by stating that countries should avoid situations “in which one country tries to let its own state security take priority over other countries’ national security.” Beijing objected to the first radar in Japan in 2006.

Beijing, which is secretive about its nuclear weapons program, reportedly is responding to U.S. moves by expanding its relatively small nuclear arsenal and working on new mobile missiles, such as the DF-41, and countermeasures to help its missiles evade U.S. defenses.

In Europe, the United States is spending billions of dollars to deploy an array of missile interceptor systems, such as SM-3 interceptors based on Aegis-equipped ships and at two land-based sites in Poland and Romania, in four phases through about 2020. NATO announced at its May summit in Chicago that the first phase of the system, including one ship with SM-3 IA interceptors and an X-band radar in Turkey, has given NATO an “interim capability.” The SM-3 IA failed its most recent intercept test on Oct. 25.

Russian officials have said that the ongoing U.S. and NATO missile defense deployments in Europe are a threat to Moscow’s strategic deterrent. In response, Moscow is resisting further bilateral reductions in nuclear stockpiles beyond those called for in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and is planning to modernize its forces. The plans include developing by 2018 a new 10-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile optimized to penetrate missile defenses.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told NATO delegates in Moscow Oct. 18 that Russia’s response to NATO’s missile defense plan “is currently mostly virtual, political, and diplomatic in character, but under certain circumstances, we would be forced to deliver a technical response, which I don’t think you’ll like.”

In the Middle East, the United States is focused on selling its missile interceptor systems to Persian Gulf states. A number of countries in the region already deploy U.S.-supplied Patriot short-range interceptors and are considering buying longer-range systems under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program. Last year, for example, the United Arab Emirates became the first country to buy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense intermediate-range interceptor system, for $3.5 billion.

As more Gulf states buy U.S. missile interceptor systems, the United States will work to promote interoperability and cooperation among those states, Frank A. Rose, deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, said Sept. 10 at a missile defense symposium in Berlin. This aspect of the plan is similar to the one for Europe, where NATO is integrating the new, U.S.-supplied interceptor systems with existing NATO short-range interceptors and sensors.

In the future, as the United States deploys additional Navy ships with SM-3 interceptors, it could assign some of those ships to the Persian Gulf, Asia, or Europe. U.S. mobile systems “can be relocated to adapt to changing regional threats and provide surge defense capabilities where they are most needed,” Rose said.

As the United States expands missile defense capabilities in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe to counter developing missile programs in Iran and North Korea, China and Russia say this expansion could be a threat to their strategic forces.

Report Critiques U.S. Missile Defense

Tom Z. Collina

Arguing that the U.S.-based ballistic missile interceptor system is “very expensive” but has “limited effectiveness” against potential attacks from Iran, a September report by the independent National Research Council recommends replacing the current system with a revamped but largely similar system and expanding it by adding a new site in an East Coast state.

The panel of experts said, however, that its proposed system might not be effective against likely threats, saying “it depends” on how the United States and potential attackers design their systems and how much they know about each other’s technology.

The 260-page report, requested by Congress and organized by the National Academy of Sciences, proposes to build faster missiles, more-maneuverable interceptors, and additional sensors to “fix” the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system now deployed in Alaska and California. The proposed system, like the current one, would seek to intercept incoming warheads while in space, or in the “midcourse” of their trajectory.

The expert panel considered alternatives to midcourse interception, such as striking enemy missiles while still in their early “boost” phase, but found these options impractical. A missile’s boost phase is simply too short—just a few minutes—for an interceptor to reach it in time, the report said. Moreover, airborne lasers would have to fly near enemy airspace and would be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, while space-based interceptors would require hundreds of satellites and cost as much as $500 billion over 20 years, the experts estimated.

The midcourse approach provides significantly more time for the intercept, but has its own drawbacks, according to the report. Most notably, it must confront the “discrimination problem” of telling the difference between real warheads and decoys, also known as countermeasures.

The Discrimination Problem

One of the main conclusions of the report is that no practical missile defense system “can avoid the need for midcourse discrimination,” which “must be addressed far more seriously if reasonable confidence is to be achieved.” Until that reality is accepted, they say, “there will be no end to the poorly thought[-]out schemes proposing to avoid the need for midcourse discrimination.”

The report finds that, “at some point, countermeasures of various kinds should be expected.” Initial decoys may be unintentional, such as debris from the booster rocket that would be traveling along with warheads through space. Yet, “as threat sophistication increases, the defense is likely to have to deal with purposeful countermeasures,” that adversaries may use to “frustrate U.S. defenses.”

At the same time, the report says that it is not clear if its own proposed system would be effective against decoys. On this central question, the panel says that its plan “offers the greatest potential for effective discrimination” but “it is by no means a certain solution” and “there is no unequivocal answer” to the question of whether missile defense can work against countermeasures.

The effectiveness of any defense against decoys “inevitably will vary with time” as the offense adapts to the defense’s fielded system and the defense seeks to respond to fielded countermeasures, they said. The report notes that confidence in U.S. defenses can only be established through “operational tests that are realistic.”

Many experts say that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) never has conducted tests against realistic countermeasures, in part because the systems have had enough trouble against targets without decoys and in part because planners assume that countries such as Iran and North Korea would not initially deploy countermeasures on their missiles. The report said the MDA has canceled research programs that would try to deal with countermeasures and that the committee “could not find anyone at MDA” who could explain much of the past research in this area.

Philip Coyle, director of the Pentagon’s operational testing office during the Clinton administration, said in a Sept. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today, “Discrimination is the Holy Grail, but no one really knows how to find it or how to get there. And like Monty Python [in the British comedy group’s movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail], the Missile Defense Agency has only pretend solutions, banging coconuts together to make the sounds of horse’s hooves, when what America needs is real horses.”

Current U.S. System ‘Fragile’

The report, called “Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives,” is sharply critical of the current 30-interceptor system deployed on the West Coast, which it describes as “fragile” and ineffective against “any but the most primitive attacks.”

The system was first deployed in 2004 by President George W. Bush “before its development was complete in order to meet what was considered an urgent need to get a system deployed quickly,” according to the report. The report was referring to the effort to field a system to counter a feared long-range ballistic missile threat from North Korea, which has yet to materialize. Iran, the other potential threat often cited to highlight the need for missile defense, has yet to test a ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

The Bush administration withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 to allow for the West Coast deployment. According to the report, the system has cost $34 billion through fiscal year 2009, the last year for which the study cited cost figures. According to the MDA, five of the eight intercept tests that have been conducted since December 2004 have failed, and there have been no successful intercept tests since 2008. The next intercept test is planned for 2013.

The report finds the West Coast system’s “shortcomings” so serious that it recommends the technology be completely redesigned, rebuilt, and retested, with a faster two-stage missile booster based on the canceled Kinetic Energy Interceptor program; a heavier interceptor, or “kill vehicle”; and more-capable sensors, including “stacked” X-band AN/TPY-2 radars. The report suggests that the current interceptors, which cost $70 million each to build, could be used as test targets for the new system.

Once this development work is complete, the report says that 30 new interceptors should be deployed on the East Coast, possibly at Fort Drum in New York or an unspecified site in northern Maine, and then used to replace the missiles deployed at the West Coast sites. The report’s co-chairs, former Lockheed Martin Missile Systems chief L. David Montague and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Walter B. Slocombe, said at a Sept. 11 press briefing that their redesigned system would take at least six to eight years to deploy.

East Coast Site by 2015?

After the report’s conclusions were partially released in an April letter to Congress, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to build a third strategic missile interceptor site on the East Coast by the end of 2015. After the research council released the full report, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, issued a Sept. 11 press statement saying that the report “validates, and informed, the provision of the [fiscal year 2013] National Defense Authorization Act which calls for the development of an East Coast site to improve the defense of the United States.”

That legislation, passed in May, would increase spending on the U.S. GMD system by $460 million above the $903 million requested by the Defense Department. Of that additional amount, $100 million would be used to study the deployment of missile interceptors on the U.S. East Coast by late 2015. The research council estimated that this new project would cost $19-25 billion over 20 years. The Defense Department has said a third interceptor site is unneeded, and the Senate version of the bill does not support a third site. (See ACT, June 2012.)

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is building a different interceptor system for NATO, known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, to handle potential future attacks from Iran against Europe. The system’s fourth phase, to be deployed around 2021, is intended to be able to intercept long-range missiles that could reach the United States.

The report states that its plan for an East Coast site would make Phase 4 of the European approach redundant and thus argues for cancellation of that phase. The report finds that the Standard Missile-3 IIB interceptor planned for Poland and Romania in Phase 4 would not be able to fly fast enough to catch missiles launched from Iran on “lofted,” or high, trajectories.

The expert panel notes that its proposed interceptor for the U.S. East Coast could be placed in Europe and would be fast enough, at 6 kilometers per second, to intercept missiles launched from Iran over Europe, but does not recommend this path. Such a move would “clearly exacerbate political tensions in the region” as such a missile would be able to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) based in southwestern Russia. “The committee does not advocate introducing an interceptor with fly-out velocity greater than about 4.5 [kilometers per second] into Europe,” the study says.

Moscow has made clear its concerns that Phase 4 of the European system could be used against Russian ICBMs, although U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the interceptors would not be aimed at Russia.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 17, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced during a trip to Asia that the United States and Japan had agreed to field a second X-band radar in Japan as part of joint missile defense deployments in the region to protect U.S. troops and “the U.S. homeland from the North Korean ballistic missile threat.” Chinese experts, however, told The New York Times they feared the system was really aimed at China, and that Beijing’s relatively small nuclear deterrent could be undermined by U.S. missile interceptors. Panetta said that the system was not aimed at Beijing.

Arguing that the U.S.-based ballistic missile interceptor system is “very expensive” but has “limited effectiveness” against potential attacks from Iran, a September report by the independent National Research Council recommends replacing the current system with a revamped but largely similar system and expanding it by adding a new site in an East Coast state.

New Report: After Over $30 Billion Spent, U.S. Missile Defense Still Has Serious "Shortcomings"

By Tom Z. Collina A report by the National Research Council (NRC) released today finds that the US Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) system deployed Alaska and California has "shortcomings" so serious that it recommends the system be completely redesigned, rebuilt and retested. The US taxpayer has spent over $33 billion on the current GMD, according to the report, which was funded by the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency. Moreover, the report finds that "boost-phase" missile defense concepts will not work and that resources should be focused on mid-course intercept, where incomming targets...

The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty at a Glance

August 2012

Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107; Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 463-8270 x104

Updated: August 2012

Negotiated between the United States and the Soviet Union as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the now-defunct Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was signed on May 26, 1972 and entered into force on October 3, 1972. The treaty, from which the United States withdrew on June 13, 2002, barred Washington and Moscow from deploying nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles. In the treaty preamble, the two sides asserted that effective limits on anti-missile systems would be a "substantial factor in curbing the race in strategic offensive arms."

Former US President, Jimmy Carter and former leader of the USSR, Leonid Brezhnev, signing the ABM treaty at the strategic arms limitation talks on May 26, 1972. (Photo: Susan Biddle/National Archives)The treaty originally permitted both countries to deploy two fixed, ground-based defense sites of 100 missile interceptors each. One site could protect the national capital, while the second could be used to guard an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) field. In a protocol signed July 3, 1974, the two sides halved the number of permitted defenses. The Soviet Union opted to keep its existing missile defense system around Moscow, while the United States eventually fielded its 100 permitted missile interceptors to protect an ICBM base near Grand Forks, North Dakota. Moscow's defense still exists, but its effectiveness is questionable. The United States shut down its permitted ABM defense only months after activating it in October 1975 because the financial costs of operating it were considered too high for the little protection it offered.

The United States and the Soviet Union negotiated the ABM Treaty as part of an effort to control their arms race in nuclear weapons. The two sides reasoned that limiting defensive systems would reduce the need to build more or new offensive weapons to overcome any defense that the other might deploy. Without effective national defenses, each superpower remained vulnerable, even at reduced or low offensive force holdings, to the other's nuclear weapons, deterring either side from launching an attack first because it faced a potential retaliatory strike that would assure its own destruction.

On December 13, 2001, President George W. Bush, who argued that Washington and Moscow no longer needed to base their relationship on their ability to destroy each other, announced that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty, claiming that it prevented U.S. development of defenses against possible terrorist or "rogue-state" ballistic missile attacks. During his presidential campaign, Bush said he would offer amendments on the treaty to Russia and would withdraw the United States from the accord if Russia rejected the proposed changes. However, the Bush administration never proposed amendments to the treaty in its talks with Russia on the subject. Although of "unlimited duration," the treaty permits a state-party to withdraw from the accord if "extraordinary events…have jeopardized its supreme interests." The U.S. withdrawal took effect June 13, 2002 and the treaty is no longer in force.

What the ABM Treaty Prohibited

  • Missile defenses that can protect all U.S. or Soviet/Russian territory against strategic ballistic missiles
  • Establishing a base for a nationwide defense against strategic ballistic missiles
  • Development, testing, or deployment of sea-, air-, space-, or mobile land-based ABM systems or components. (Because of the inability of either country to verify activities behind closed doors, the development and testing ban was understood to apply when components and systems moved from laboratory to field testing.)
  • Development, testing, or deployment of strategic missile interceptor launchers that can fire more than one interceptor at a time or are capable of rapid reload
  • Upgrading existing non-ABM missiles, launchers, or radars to have ABM capabilities and testing existing missiles, launchers, or radars in an ABM mode (i.e. against strategic or long-range ballistic missile targets)
  • Deployment of radars capable of early warning of strategic ballistic missile attack anywhere other than on the periphery of U.S. or Soviet/Russian territory and oriented outward
  • Deployment of ABM radars capable of tracking and discriminating incoming strategic targets and guiding defensive interceptors, except within a 150 kilometer radius of the one permitted defense
  • Transfer or deployment of ABM systems or components outside U.S. and Soviet/Russian territory

What the ABM Treaty Permitted

  • One regional defense of 100 ground-based missile interceptors to protect either the capital or an ICBM field
  • A total of 15 missile interceptor launchers at designated missile defense test ranges
  • Research, laboratory, and fixed land-based testing of any type of missile defense
  • Use of national technical means, such as satellites, to verify compliance. (The ABM Treaty was the first treaty to prohibit a state-party from interfering with another state-party's national technical means of verification.)
  • States-parties to raise questions about compliance, as well as any other treaty-related issue, at the Standing Consultative Commission, which was a body established by the treaty that meets at least twice per year
  • Theater (nonstrategic) missile defenses of any type to protect against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. (The ABM Treaty originally did not specifically delineate the point at which a missile defense would be considered strategic or nonstrategic. The United States and Russia negotiated and signed a demarcation agreement on this subject in September 1997. Russia ratified the agreement in May 2000, but it has never been transmitted to the Senate for its advice and consent, and therefore the agreement has not entered into force. The Bush administration's June 13 withdrawal from the ABM Treaty makes the demarcation agreement moot)
  • Either state-party to propose amendments
Missile Defense

Dumping the ABM Treaty: Was It Worth It?

In retrospect, the Bush administration should not have fielded its national missile defense system. The technology was not ripe; the threat had not materialized; and the opportunity cost was too high. President George W. Bush announcing his intentions to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) on December 13, 2001. By Tom Z. Collina Ten years ago this week, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty , becoming the first nation since World War II to exit a major arms control agreement. At the time, the George W. Bush administration's decision was...


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