Doubts Persist Over Timeline For Obama Missile Shield Plan

Almost two years after the Obama administration announced its plan to establish over a decade a missile shield that would provide protection to all of Europe, doubts remain over the feasibility of the program's ambitious timeline, Aviation Week reported on Monday (see GSN, April 14).

Technology, bureaucratic hurdles and financing issues must be dealt with in order to complete the White House's "phased adaptive approach" for European missile defense by 2020. The plan envisions the successive deployment of increasingly advanced sea- and land-based Standard Missile 3 interceptors around Europe as insurance against a potential missile strike from the Middle East. The final phase is intended to counter ICBM threats.

That approach replaced a Bush administration plan to deploy 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland. In scrapping the Bush plan, the Obama administration rationalized that Europe is more likely to face short- and medium-range missile strikes from the Middle East than ICBMs. Previous projections that Iran would wield an ICBM as early as 2015 have been pushed back by several years though some in the U.S. intelligence community contend that an Iranian intercontinental capability in four years time is still feasible.

"We fully expect to have a viable early intercept capability with the SM-3 Block 2B in the 2020 time period," the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said in response to questions on what the Defense Department would do if such a capacity through that updated Standard Missile 3 system is not established by 2020.

Early intercept is described as taking place before a missile separates from its warhead, according to MDA Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly. Additionally, early intercept technology could provide a second chance to eliminate the warhead if a first attempt fails.

Early intercept abilities are currently "limited," according to some U.S. officials. The decision to seek an early intercept capacity by the Obama administration was taken in order to abrogate the need to distinguish real warheads from diversions in outer space.

Some question the viability of establishing an early intercept capability given the challenge of ensuring sensors are precisely located to identify a missing firing and interceptors can reach the threat before the warhead separates from the rocket. A particular concern is the capacity to shield the eastern United States from an Iranian ICBM strike, according to Aviation Week. A Defense Science Board analysis of early intercept possibilities is expected to be delivered to Defense Department senior officials in the fall.

Certain private sector and government insiders said the analysis expresses doubts over the feasibility of achieving early intercept under the time frame of the Obama plan with current funding levels. The report is anticipated to affect whether work on the interceptor continues and, assuming that occurs, the configuration of the weapon.

The Missile Defense Agency has awarded study contracts to three defense firms -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon -- to examine viable and affordable missile configurations for the SM-3 Block 2B interceptor (see GSN, April 8).

The objective of the SM-3 Block 2B effort is to develop an interceptor that has a high velocity when the interceptor deploys its kill warhead. The system is intended to give the warhead the ability to cover greater territory.

"Range doesn't always get you there in missile defense," one industry insider said. "It really is your velocity at burnout."

The Missile Defense Agency is expected to seek SM-3 Block 2B program monies in its fiscal 2013 budget request (Amy Butler, Aviation Week, June 13).

June 14, 2011
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Almost two years after the Obama administration announced its plan to establish over a decade a missile shield that would provide protection to all of Europe, doubts remain over the feasibility of the program's ambitious timeline, Aviation Week reported on Monday (see GSN, April 14).