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Deployment of U.S.-Based Missile Interceptors Cut Off at 30

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(May. 22) -Alaska National Guard troops operate ground-based missile defenses at Fort Greely, Alaska. The Pentagon yesterday said it would limit the number of interceptors at the base and at another site in California (U.S. National Guard Bureau photo). (May. 22) -Alaska National Guard troops operate ground-based missile defenses at Fort Greely, Alaska. The Pentagon yesterday said it would limit the number of interceptors at the base and at another site in California (U.S. National Guard Bureau photo).

WASHINGTON -- The head of the U.S. Army's Space and Missile Defense Command said yesterday that it "makes sense" to deploy no more than 30 missile interceptors in silos on U.S. soil. (see GSN, May 21).

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense System -- which is scheduled to feature 30 interceptors fielded in California and Alaska by the end of this year -- is "capable of doing what we need it to do against the threat we designed it against; that threat, of course, was North Korea," Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell said at a breakfast on Capitol Hill.

There are currently 25 interceptors at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and three at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner told Global Security Newswire in a telephone interview today. Ultimately, 26 weapons are planned for Alaska and four for California. The program costs $35.5 billion.

"That number makes sense to us as we look at the threat and where the threat is going and how quickly we think the threat can get there," Campbell said.

On April 5, North Korea launched a rocket that flew 1,900 miles before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. That is twice the distance reached in a 1998 rocket test and a significant improvement over Pyongyang's 2006 test of its Taepodong 2 long-range missile, which failed in under one minute. The regime also possesses an arsenal of shorter-range missiles (see related GSN story, today).

North Korea said the launch was a successful attempt to put a communications satellite into orbit; other nations claimed it was another test of long-range missile technology and that the rocket's payload never reached space.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told senators that 30 ground-based interceptors "provide a strong defense" against "the level of [missile] capability that North Korea has now and is likely to have for some years to come." The system is designed to defend the United States against intermediate- and long-range missiles in the middle range of flight.

The choice to hold at 30 interceptors has not gone without criticism. U.S. Representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) last week argued that "the more interceptors we have in our arsenal the more chances we have at interdicting an incoming missile."

He called for the United States to maintain a three-to-one- or two-to-one advantage of interceptors over enemy missiles.

Campbell said the U.S. Missile Defense Agency plans to purchase 44 interceptors in all, though the final 14 would not be deployed. Rather, they would give the United States a "great advantage" in terms of "liability," he said.

"I think the advantage in this course of action is we can go back and if we have any missiles that have any problems we can go back and take out the oldest missiles and put in recently manufactured ones," the commander told the audience. The older models could then be used for testing, he added.

Ten of the additional interceptors would be used for testing, with the remaining four serving as "operational spares," Lehner said.

The production of all 44 interceptors is expected to continue until 2013, according to Campbell.

Lehner told GSN that not deploying the additional 14 interceptors would save roughly $160 million that would have gone toward completing construction of a second silo field at Fort Greeley. However, there will be costs for capping the silos that have already been built.

Campbell said he had not read a report released earlier this week by the EastWest Institute but was told it concluded that the U.S. missile defenses proposed for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic would not adequately safeguard Europe against a nuclear strike.

The report also declared that Iran's ability to carry out a nuclear strike against Europe is "not imminent."

Campbell was wary of the report's findings. "We've been surprised before and I think we should be very modest about our ability to predict the future," he said.

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