Expert Study Backs Call for Third U.S. Missile Interceptor Site

A U.S. long-range missile interceptor in 2004 is installed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. A new expert report supports establishing a new interceptor base on the East Coast (AP Photo/U.S. Missile Defense Agency).
A U.S. long-range missile interceptor in 2004 is installed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. A new expert report supports establishing a new interceptor base on the East Coast (AP Photo/U.S. Missile Defense Agency).

WASHINGTON -- A National Research Council expert panel on Tuesday backed establishment of a new long-range missile interceptor site in the eastern United States, arguing that the existing national defense network was not sufficiently robust to respond to evolving ballistic missile threats.

The council, whose scientific recommendations carry substantial weight in Washington, in the newly released report ordered by Congress said the most “practical” antimissile strategy should focus on eliminating enemy weapons in the middle phase of flight rather than immediately after takeoff or as they approach a target.

Former Defense Undersecretary Walter Slocombe, who co-chaired the NRC expert committee that drafted in the report, in a Tuesday conference call with reporters said midcourse intercept offers a greater window of time for attempting to destroy incoming missiles than boost-phase or terminal intercept technologies.

The Defense Department’s principal midcourse antimissile assets are the Ground-based Midcourse Defense initiative, which deploys 30 long-range interceptors in silos in Alaska and California, and the Standard Missile 3, which is fielded on U.S. warships deployed around the globe.

The GMD system is the primary missile defense of the mainland United States. However, the NRC report concludes the system at present offers only “fragile” protection for the country and is not well-suited to eliminating ballistic missiles fired by nations other than North Korea. An NRC press release accompanying the report says improvements planned by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, which include updates to system radars and the addition of a third interceptor field at Fort Greely in Alaska, do not go far enough in addressing the program’s deficits.

The NRC expert panel advocated expanding the system by installing a third land-based GMD site somewhere in the Northeast where interceptors would be better positioned to destroy any missiles fired from the Middle East.

Slocombe said the envisioned new interceptor site could be in upstate New York or Maine “but the basic concept is that it should be in that area.”

That falls in line with a mandate included in fiscal 2013 defense legislation approved by the Republican-led House of Representatives to establish a third GMD site by the end of 2015. The Defense Department has said a third interceptor site is unneeded.

The NRC committee suggested enhancing five existing X-band radar sites with proven technologies so they can see even further out in detecting missile threats. The panel also recommended developing more compact, two-stage interceptors equipped with optical sensors that would transmit missile threat data to radars and command-and-control centers. 

“An additional interceptor site … together with the recommended radar additions provides [strained layer superlattice] coverage of virtually the entire United States and Canada against the sort of threat that can prudently be expected to emerge from North Korea or Iran over the coming decade or so,” the committee concluded in its 239-page report.

L. David Montague, the NRC committee’s other co-chairman, told reporters he does not agree with the GOP’s call for a third interceptor site by 2015.

“We believe it would take a longer time to develop the [envisioned two-stage] interceptor than three years even though the technology is not new technology,” said Montague, a retired president of the missile system division at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space. “Same thing as the radar.”

The suggested fixes would actually lower the long-term cost of the GMD system, according to the committee, and the needed funding for the improvements could be found in the Pentagon’s $45 billion spending plan for fiscal years 2010 through fiscal 2016 if other less-useful antimissile initiatives are canceled.

The National Research Council panel recommended continued development of theater antimissile systems including the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, Patriot Advanced Capability 3 systems, and the Standard Missile 3 interceptor.

The committee said if the suggested enhancements to the GMD system are implemented, the final planned phase of the Obama administration’s program for European ballistic missile defense should be canceled as it not be required to protect European allies and would be “less than optimal” for defending the homeland United State. Phase four calls for the fielding in 2020 of next-generation SM-3 Block 2B interceptors capable of destroying ICBMs.

The panel advised against any new funding for research into potential missile intercept capabilities that would destroy targets shortly after takeoff as it concluded there is little real-world utility for the experimental technology.

The NRC expert committee was assigned under 2009 defense authorization legislation to examine the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of developing “boost-phase intercept” systems that would eliminate enemy missiles right after they leave the ground and before their rocket engines had ceased firing. The antimissile technology has been envisioned as being used to defeat limited ballistic missile strikes launched by North Korea or Iran.

“The main challenge associated with boost-phase intercept is the short time associated with powered [rocket] flight, typically between 60 and 300 seconds depending on the missile’s range and propellant type,” the committee wrote.

Additionally, “the range of interceptors (whether propelled by kinetic or directed energy) is limited so that the platform for a boost-phase defense system must be relatively close to the threat trajectory if intercept is to be possible,” the report notes.

Placing boost-phase interceptors near target missile launchpads is likely to bring the antimissile system within striking range of the hostile country’s domestic air defenses. “This constraint on platform location is particularly restrictive for airborne platforms and ships,” the committee found.

The Pentagon in the recent past has explored antimissile technologies with boost-phase interception applications, namely the Airborne Laser Test Bed program and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor.

Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 canceled Northrop Grumman’s KEI program, which focused on developing land- and sea-based mobile interceptors equipped with a hit-to-kill component. Boeing’s ABL initiative, which involved installing ballistic missile-obliterating chemical lasers in modified Boeing 747s, had its only experimental aircraft mothballed in February.

Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner told Global Security Newswire the NRC findings meshed with the Pentagon’s own determination to end funding to boost-phase interception technologies. “We don’t have any boost phase missile defense program in development at all,” he said.

The Pentagon branch funded the study.

September 11, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- A National Research Council expert panel on Tuesday backed establishment of a new long-range missile interceptor site in the eastern United States, arguing that the existing national defense network was not sufficiently robust to respond to evolving ballistic missile threats.