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NRC Report Refreshes Questions on Obama Antimissile Strategy

The Tuesday release of a long-awaited National Research Council report assessing U.S. ballistic missile defenses has produced fresh criticism of the Obama administration's plan for shielding the country and called into question the wisdom of reversing a Bush-era focus on defending against long-range threats, the New York Times reported.

President Obama in 2009 threw out a Bush plan to field 10 long-range missile interceptors in Poland and an accompanying radar base in the Czech Republic. He replaced the project with a "phased adaptive approach" that would through 2020 field increasingly capable interceptors around Europe to defend primarily against possible short- and medium-range ballistic missiles fired by Iran. 

An NRC expert committee concluded in a lengthy report that the current main system for protecting the mainland United States from a ballistic missile attack -- the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system -- is "fragile" and not well-designed for defending against anything but early generation missiles launched by North Korea.

The GMD system is presently composed of 30 long-range interceptors located in silos in California and Alaska and supporting X-band radar technology. The NRC panel advised installing a third long-range interceptor site in the U.S. Northeast that could be employed to defeat any missiles fired from the Middle East; adding five more radars; and developing new smaller two-stage GMD interceptors equipped with optical sensors that would be networked with system radars and command-and-control centers.

The committee also recommended increasing efforts to develop antimissile technology more capable of distinguishing actual enemy missiles from decoys and rocket debris.

Former Obama administration security official Philip Coyle said the GMD system should be overhauled entirely and that U.S. antimissile efforts are focused on "producing and fielding hardware" instead of developing workable strategies for defending the country against ballistic missile strikes.

The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, which oversees the bulk of U.S. antimissile research, development and acquisition, played down the report's criticisms of the GMD program as "an old story."

The NRC advisement to increase efforts on responding to hostile countries' efforts to thwart U.S. missile defenses was expected and "totally logical," MDA spokesman Richard Lehner said to the Times.

The National Research Council is seen as one of the foremost scientific bodies in the United States and its recommendations have significant influence. Its faulting of the GMD system as well as an Obama plan to around 2020 field in Europe missile interceptors capable of destroying ICBMs are a serious setback to the administration's antimissile strategy.

The Republican-dominated House of Representatives this year passed legislation calling for the establishment by 2015 of a third GMD interceptor site somewhere on the East Coast as a countermeasure to the evolving Iranian ballistic missile threat. Iran is not presently understood to have operational ballistic missiles with ranges exceeding 800 miles and the Pentagon has said there is no need for another interceptor site.

The NRC report advises installing 50 interceptors at the proposed East Coast site, with 20 of the weapons intended for trial and assessment purposes.

A number of scientific specialists criticized the NRC findings. Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Theodore Postol said the mathematical reasoning behind the call for more GMD radars  was "completely wrong and unrealistic." The high-profile opponent of missile defense activities said, "they're claiming they can do things that are not physically possible."

Arms Control Association research head Tom Collina, however, said the assessment decisively showed that present national missile defenses are seriously lacking. Designing new interceptors for a third GMD site "might take a decade or more," he told the newspaper.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in a release strongly cautioned against implementing the National Research Council's recommendations for GMD improvements without first affirming the suggested technology works.

"It makes no sense to build new interceptors and expand the ground-based missile defense system without proving that the system works," UCS Global Security Program senior scientist Laura Grego said in a provided statement. "Congress should require that before expanding the U.S. system, the Missile Defense Agency subject it to rigorous testing against realistic targets with countermeasures. The system has yet to be tested in this way."


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