Senators Question U.S. Missile Defense Strategy

(Jun. 17) -U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn yesterday told lawmakers that the Obama administration might incorporate two Russian radar bases in a possible European missile shield (Jewel Samad/Getty Images).
(Jun. 17) -U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn yesterday told lawmakers that the Obama administration might incorporate two Russian radar bases in a possible European missile shield (Jewel Samad/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers yesterday questioned the Obama administration's seeming hesitation to pursue deployment of missile defense assets in Europe (see GSN, June 15).

The issue was one of several raised as high-level defense officials appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss missile shield activities in the next fiscal year and beyond. Senators also questioned the decision to cap the number of U.S.-based missile interceptors at 30.

President Barack Obama's fiscal 2010 budget request includes $9.3 billion for missile defense programs, $1.2 billion below fiscal 2009 levels.

The president and senior defense officials have raised doubts about the European-based missile defense plan conceived by the Bush administration, which has been vehemently opposed by Moscow. The final fate of the plan -- which would involve a radar site in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland -- remains up in the air.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told the panel that the administration is examining ways to include two Russian radar installations in a European system.

"We are looking at alternatives in Europe, including the Polish-Czech option, to defend against an Iranian missile threat," Lynn said yesterday, adding that no final decision has been made. He said that a radar installation in southern Russia "would provide helpful early warning detection in the case of an Iranian ballistic missile attack."

Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, told the panel that he had visited a Russian radar facility at Gabala, Azerbaijan, and that both sites would be helpful in monitoring Iranian missile tests.

"A U.S.-Russian collaboration would have an additional benefit of a diplomatic signaling to the Iranians that this is an unacceptable course for them to pursue and that they will face a concerted international front, should they proceed down that path," Lynn added.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said that he was "troubled" by Lynn's comments regarding the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, adding that they "sounded much more tentative than I thought our policy was."

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) added: "Well, if we can't make up our mind about it, it's not likely that the Poles or Czechs are going to be supportive of this system, and I think that's undermined that whole process."

Lieberman said he feared that not pursuing the Polish and Czech installations would limit protection of the United States from an Iranian missile attack.

O'Reilly said the plan would provide "redundant coverage" of the country, adding that interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., protect against missiles attacks from both North Korea and Iran.

Lawmakers also questioned the decision to cap that program, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System, at 30 weapons. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's ranking member, bluntly asked, "What analysis was done to arrive at that decision?"

The choice to hold at 30 interceptors has received criticism from lawmakers of both parties who are anxious about the threats posed by North Korea and Iran. In the last few months North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests and a second underground nuclear blast. Reports indicate that the Stalinist state could launch another long-range missile and several medium-range weapons soon (see related GSN story, today).

Meanwhile, Iran has successfully tested a ballistic missile capable of reaching Israel and parts of Europe (see GSN, May 21).

The decision to deploy 30 weapons will allow the agency to "more efficiently and effectively manage the long-term health of a fleet of ground-based interceptors with sufficient firepower to counter emerging rogue nation" threats, according to O'Reilly.

Today there are 25 interceptors at Fort Greely and three at Vandenberg. By the end of this year, 26 weapons are expected to be deployed in Alaska and four in California, at a total cost of $35.5 billion.

Under the proposed budget the agency would purchase 44 interceptors in all, though the final 14 would not be deployed. Ten of the additional interceptors would be used for testing, while four would serve as "operational spares," Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner told Global Security Newswire in May (see GSN, May 22).

He said that not deploying the additional 14 interceptors would save roughly $160 million that would have gone toward completing construction of the second silo field at Fort Greely. However, there will be costs for capping the silos that have already been built.

The defense officials emphasized that the administration plan would provide them with an interceptor system that could be expanded to deal with threats from Pyongyang and Tehran.

"The threat we face from Iran and North Korea at this point is in the range of a handful of missiles. Thirty interceptors in silos would more than address that threat," Lynn said. "So, the decision was made that we would be . . . better off ensuring those 30 silos have operationally ready missiles rather than expanding the number of silos."

The need for 44 interceptors was assessed when missile defense officials worked with a "four shot salvo" against every threat, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers. Officials also worked without "credible" capabilities against weapons in their boost and end phases of flight. He said those deficiencies were addressed through the development of sea-based radar and programs such as the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system.

While North Korea's actions are unpredictable, its missile capabilities are "understood" and "well within the bounds of a 30 missile field," he said.

"We would be able to expand the field far faster than they could expand their capabilities," Cartwright told lawmakers.

North Korea could possess missile technology capable of reaching the west coast of the United States in the next three to five years, Cartwright said. That estimate does not include the "significant challenges" of placing a nuclear warhead atop a missile that can successfully navigate the Earth's atmosphere and then hit a target.

The general quickly added: "One thing I'm sure of is that that number's exactly wrong, but it's in the ballpark."

O'Reilly said that there would be "90 percent plus" chance the interceptor system would be able to bring down a missile fired at the"defended area" -- meaning the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii.

An ongoing Ballistic Missile Defense Review -- which is closely linked to the Quadrennial Defense Review, as well as two other congressionally mandated reviews of U.S. nuclear posture and space posture -- is expected to examine all aspects of missile defense plans, programs, operations and requirements, as well as management and oversight of missile defense in the department, according to Lynn.

June 17, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers yesterday questioned the Obama administration's seeming hesitation to pursue deployment of missile defense assets in Europe (see GSN, June 15).