Questions Arise on Backbone of New Missile Defense Plan

(Oct. 1) -A U.S. Navy warship fires a Standard Missile 3 interceptor in a July test. Some observers have expressed doubts about an Obama administration plan to field the interceptors in and around Europe (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).
(Oct. 1) -A U.S. Navy warship fires a Standard Missile 3 interceptor in a July test. Some observers have expressed doubts about an Obama administration plan to field the interceptors in and around Europe (U.S. Missile Defense Agency photo).

Some observers question whether the weapons that would be central to the Obama administration's new missile defense plan for Europe can be trusted to function during a conflict, the Associated Press reported yesterday (see GSN, Sept. 30).

Washington has replaced the Bush administration drive to deploy long-range missile interceptors in Poland with an initiative to field successive sea- and land-based versions of the Navy's Standard Missile 3. The system would be intended to protect U.S. allies and forces in Europe against short- and medium-range missiles, which are now seen as the looming threat from Iran.

The existing system, SM-3 Block 1A, over the last two years has tested strongly in eight flight exercises, according to the Defense Department. Pentagon officials say the system, in combination with sensor and radar technology, offers a highly sophisticated and economical option for dealing with missile threats.

Others disagree. There has been no realistic testing of the Standard Missile 3, which could still be fooled by balloons or other decoys likely to be deployed by an enemy missile, argued David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"I don't think you can really count on any missile defense system at this point," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington.

There are also concerns about in cost-savings in the new plan, AP reported.

"I have questions about these cost issues," Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) said during a hearing last month.

The existing Standard Missile 3 costs roughly $10 million each, with anticipated improvements driving the price tag to between $13 million and $15 million, according to Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The cost estimate for each silo-based interceptor that had been planned for Poland was $70 million.

Critics say, though, that construction and extended operational costs could eliminate any cost savings. The Congressional Budget Office early this year estimated the cost of the Bush plan at between $9 billion and $13 billion over two decades. A ship-based alternative would cost $18 billion to $26 billion, with much of the extra cost linked to the necessity of building new vessels. However, some of that cost might have come from pre-existing plans to equip no fewer than 67 Navy vessels with Aegis ballistic missile defense technology; the Pentagon says it would also cut costs by deploying some systems on land (Richard Lardner, Associated Press/Google News, Sept. 30).

October 1, 2009
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Some observers question whether the weapons that would be central to the Obama administration's new missile defense plan for Europe can be trusted to function during a conflict, the Associated Press reported yesterday (see GSN, Sept. 30).