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Former Missile Defense Head Backs Expedited Work on East Coast Site
WASHINGTON -- The former head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency says the rising threats posed by Iran and North Korea justify accelerating work on a proposed East Coast missile interceptor site.
“I think it’s prudent,” said Trey Obering, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, emphasizing that efforts could be expedited without risking missteps.
House Republicans are pushing for the speedy establishment of a third U.S. homeland missile defense site that would complement existing installations in Alaska and California. They are facing strong pushback from senior Democratic lawmakers, the White House and top Defense Department officials, who say there is no reason to rush work on the site, which has yet to be formally authorized.
“There have got to be site considerations that are done, but there are also ways that you can accelerate that. You can do things concurrently. You can be doing the site assessments and the environmental impact” evaluations, Obering said. He spoke in a Wednesday phone interview from London, where he was on travel. Obering is now a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.
The Missile Defense Agency is presently in the middle of an extensive “siting study.” The fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act ordered the appraisal to identify at least three possible locations for a third homeland defense interceptor site, two of which must be on the East Coast.
Officials anticipate deciding on the site location by the end of the year, after which an 18-24 month environmental impact assessment would take place before site construction could get under way.
Obering and Republicans supporters of accelerating work on the effort argue that that timetable is too lengthy, particularly given the advances that both North Korea and Iran have made in recent years in their pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles.
Pyongyang in December carried out its first successful launch of a three-stage rocket. The North Korean military was assessed by at least one U.S. agency to likely have developed the capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads for delivery by ballistic missiles, but that view is not widely shared inside the intelligence community.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon in a report this spring estimated that Tehran could be ready to test an ICBM as early as 2015, if it receives outside assistance.
“I think we are already behind … when it comes to this,” said Obering, who led the MDA office from 2004 to 2009. “If we start right now, unless things are accelerated, we’re not going to have anything for five to six years.”
Proponents of establishing a third U.S. interceptor site say it would primarily focus on shielding the eastern half of the country from a strategic missile attack by Iran. In the event of a North Korean strike, East Coast interceptors could be launched if West Coast-based defenses fail to engage the incoming threat.
In the view of some, the East Coast has been left without the missile protection that earlier-proposed interceptors in Europe were intended to provide.
A Bush-era initiative to locate long-range Ground-Based Interceptors in Poland was canceled in 2009, and a decision was made this year to abort a more recent plan to develop and field, also in Poland, the next-generation Standard Missile 3 Block 2B interceptor.
“I look at East Coast missile defense as a deterrent to someone launching a rocket,” Peter Huessy, who heads the consulting firm Geostrategic Analysis and supports expediting work on the proposed site, said in a Tuesday interview.
The U.S. military, however, says the East Coast is already “well protected” and that the March announcement to field 14 additional GBI missiles in Alaska under the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system will provide a sufficient guard against any missile fired by North Korea.
There is “no validated military requirement to deploy an East Coast missile defense site,” according to the current head of the MDA office, Vice Adm. James Syring, and the head of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, Lt. Gen. Richard Formica. They addressed the matter in a Monday letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
An amendment to the House version of the fiscal 2014 Defense Authorization Act would mandate the establishment of an East Coast site by 2018 and approves $140 million for work on the facility.
Formica and Syring, however, said they did not favor a congressional mandate to build the installation and would prefer instead to focus on improving U.S. missile defense sensor capabilities. The pair emphasized a desire to improve missile defense “threat discrimination” -- the ability to distinguish mid-flight warheads from decoys and any debris associated with the separation of reentry vehicles from their missiles.
“While a potential East Coast site would add operational capability it would also come at significant materiel development and service sustainment cost,” the two senior officers said.
The Missile Defense Agency estimates it would cost a minimum of $3 billion to install up to 20 land-based interceptors and would take five years to build such a site.
The White House has threatened to veto the defense funding bill if it contains the House mandate to establish the site, as it “ignores possible alternatives, ignores fiscal constraints, presumes a validated military requirement” and conflicts with Congress’ own directive, under the Fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act, for a site evaluation to first be completed.
Obering said he agrees with Syring and Formica on the importance of prioritizing work on the warhead discrimination issue, but emphasized that establishing interceptors on the East Coast might also be regarded as a pressing issue. The retired three-star general called for expanding the missile defense budget so that there is enough money to address the two.
“I am advocating that we should be doing both,” said Obering. “I cannot imagine why they wouldn’t get full budget support for this. The primary role of government is to protect your people.”
Experts with the National Research Council have called for the design of a better-quality optical sensor that would be mounted on the GBI missile, as well as the fielding of more X-band radars, in order to address the problem of distinguishing between targets.
The Defense Department is attempting to remedy the warhead-discrimination problem and a successful late January flight test of the GBI missile showed that it has made strides in improving these capabilities, according to Obering.
It is still up in the air whether the proposed eastern site would house GBI missiles or another type of U.S. interceptor. As the Ground-Based Interceptor has the longest range, it is the preferred choice, according to Obering.
“If you are talking about persistent, around-the-clock protection of the entire country, you are going to have to have something with the range of GBI,” he said.
Opponents of the Republican plan to expedite work on the East Coast site argue it would be a waste of money to buy more costly GBI missiles before the discrimination problem is addressed. The Pentagon has not yet released a full cost estimate for overcoming the warhead-from-decoy differentiation challenge.
“Some people are putting the cart before the horse, in my point of view,” said Philip Coyle, who formerly headed the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office, in a Monday conference call with reporters.
Now a senior science fellow with the Center for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, Coyle said it makes no sense to fast-track development of the site until what he sees as multiple shortcomings with the GBI system, including the discrimination issue, are addressed.
Obering said he recognized that the GBI system has its problems, but added he thinks that is exactly why both building an East Coast site and improving the interceptor should be undertaken concurrently.
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