Administration Defends Changes to European Missile Shield

(Oct. 2) -A U.S. ground-based missile interceptor is lowered into a silo at Fort Greely, Alaska, in 2004. The arsenal of interceptors in Alaska and California would provide "full protection of the homeland" from an Iranian long-range missile threat by the end of next year, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).
(Oct. 2) -A U.S. ground-based missile interceptor is lowered into a silo at Fort Greely, Alaska, in 2004. The arsenal of interceptors in Alaska and California would provide "full protection of the homeland" from an Iranian long-range missile threat by the end of next year, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).

WASHINGTON -- Key officials from the U.S. Defense and State departments yesterday vigorously defended the Obama administration's decision to retool a proposed Europe-based missile defense shield (see GSN, Oct. 1).

"We are not scrapping missile defense in Europe. We are strengthening it," Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy told the House Armed Services Committee.

The White House announced two weeks ago that it would shelve a Bush administration plan to deploy 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic as a hedge against a developing missile threat from Iran (see GSN, Sept. 17). The plan proved controversial in the proposed host countries and was vehemently opposed by Russia as a threat to its strategic security.

The Obama initiative calls for the United States through 2020 to field successive sea- and land-based versions of the Navy's Standard Missile 3. The system would be designed primarily to protect U.S. allies and forces in Europe against short- and medium-range missiles, which the administration sees as the growing threat from Iran.

The proposal received a mixed reception during a Senate hearing Wednesday and yesterday the House panel's ranking member, Representative Howard McKeon (R-Calif.) said that he remains "skeptical" of the changes.

"I think there are questionable assumptions, a lot of ifs and considerable geopolitical consequences," he said.

One of those assumptions, McKeon suggested, is the White House assessment that Iran is not likely to possess an ICBM until 2020. He called the view "inconsistent" with previous intelligence reports that indicated that Tehran could have such as weapon by 2015, he said.

The new proposal is not a departure from previous missile defense objectives but reflects an adjustment to the threats combatant commanders "actually face today," Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee.

Existing missile defense systems, including the Patriot missile and the ground-based interceptor, were designed to engage three to five incoming missiles, according to Cartwright.

"What we're facing today in the short-range fight is hundreds and what we think we're going to face in the medium-range fight in the very near future is hundreds," he said. "None of the systems we have today were built for hundreds."

Flournoy said the 30 ground-based interceptor missiles set to be deployed in Alaska and California by the end of 2010 would provide the United States with "full protection of the homeland" against an Iranian long-range missile threat.

U.S. Missile Defense Agency chief Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly said the 30 interceptors could go "both ways" against missile attacks from Iran and North Korea.

"It's in a prime location for both threats," he said.

O'Reilly said the existing Standard Missile 3 costs roughly $10 million per missile. The next generation of that missile will cost between $13 million and $15 million, he said. The cost estimate for each silo-based interceptor that had been planned for Poland was $70 million, according to the MDA chief.

Cartwright later admitted that the Obama plan would eventually cost more than the previous proposal. The new plan involves a number of mobile parts as opposed to the previous blueprint with its "fixed base infrastructure," he said, without providing a specific figure.

International Reactions

Congressional critics charge that the White House made changes to the missile shield as a sop to Russia. The Obama administration has sought to "reset" relations with Moscow and garner its support for the effort to shut down Iran's nuclear activities.

Officials yesterday refuted strongly that claim.

"This is not about Russia. It never has been about Russia," Flournoy said.

"Nothing that we did had anything to do with Russian saber-rattling or their consternation about the ground-based interceptors or the Czech radar," Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher told the panel. "The decision was not part of any trade-off or quid pro quo."

She added that "if as a consequence of President [Barack] Obama's decision relations with Russia improve, then we should embrace that benefit."

Tauscher said she is scheduled to travel to Moscow by mid-October for meetings with Russian Foreign Ministry officials. Missile defense and the follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty will be discussed, she said (see GSN, Sept. 22).

The administration yesterday also sought to allay unhappiness voiced by members of the committee over the way leaders in Prague and Warsaw had been informed of the White House decision.

"So how did the administration inform Prague and Warsaw of its decision? Reportedly via late-night phone calls and hastily assembled diplomatic envoys," McKeon said. "Apparently the Czech prime minister was woken out of bed after midnight, and the Polish prime minister refused to answer the phone, suspecting what the news might be."

Added Representative Vic Snyder (D-Ark.): "There are clearly some voices being heard from Poland that think they were mistreated."

Tauscher replied that there was "a lot of leaking going on" in the media and that "literally within hours of the president making the decision we were on planes going to see them."

The Czech Republic could still host some of the proposed system's command and control elements, according to Flournoy.

Tauscher said that when she visited Warsaw last month she offered Poland the opportunity to host a land-based SM-3 interceptor site. The United States could also station troops in that country, "which is what the Polish government really wants," she told the committee. The former lawmaker said that the deployment could include a Patriot missile unit.

Obama has said he hopes to collaborate with Russia on missile defense (see GSN, Sept. 30).

A State Department official said last week that the administration would also work in the coming months at the "political level" to garner support at NATO for the altered missile defense shield.

"Imagine the signal it would send if the U.S., NATO and Russia were working together on a combined missile defense system designed to deal with a potential threat from Iran," he told Global Security Newswire. "Now, is it possible? I don't know."

October 2, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- Key officials from the U.S. Defense and State departments yesterday vigorously defended the Obama administration's decision to retool a proposed Europe-based missile defense shield (see GSN, Oct. 1).