U.S. Government Experts See Major Hurdles for European Missile Shield

The Aegis cruiser USS Shiloh fires a Standard Missile 3 interceptor during an exercise near Hawaii in 2006. The Defense Science Board in a new report said radars on U.S. Aegis warships need a greater range to enable interceptors to take down missiles that might be fired at Europe from the Middle East (AP Photo/U.S. Navy).
The Aegis cruiser USS Shiloh fires a Standard Missile 3 interceptor during an exercise near Hawaii in 2006. The Defense Science Board in a new report said radars on U.S. Aegis warships need a greater range to enable interceptors to take down missiles that might be fired at Europe from the Middle East (AP Photo/U.S. Navy).

Two reports by U.S. government experts have determined the Obama administration initiative to establish a ballistic missile shield in Europe is beset by radar technology problems, along with potential expense hikes and significant timeline overruns -- raising questions about the overall achievability of the plan, the Associated Press reported on Saturday (see GSN, Feb. 3).

The White House's "phased adaptive approach" through 2020 is to field increasingly advanced Standard Missile 3 interceptors on bases in Poland and Romania and on Aegis-equipped missile destroyers home ported in Spain. An accompanying long-range radar system has already been established in Turkey. The U.S. effort is to form the core of a broader NATO initiative to link up and augment individual member nations' antimissile program all for the stated goal of deterring a possible ballistic missile strike from the Middle East.

An analysis by the Defense Science Board, which advises the Defense Department, determined that while there were "no fundamental roadblocks" to the envisioned missile shield, serious challenges lie ahead of its implementation. The report, published in late 2011, did not offer suggestions for how those problems could be surmounted. 

The Government Accountability Office addressed the missile shield in a report issued on Friday.

Defense Science Board members opted not to discuss their assessment publicly, but independent analysts said the points outlined in the analysis would necessitate significant and expensive alterations to the Obama plan.

The board's report said the X-band radar operating in Turkey's Kurecik province needed a significantly greater coverage zone in order to detect and monitor launched missiles in the initial stages of their flight. The analysis said it was not apparent how those improvements could be made.

The analysis also concludes that the detection range of the radars onboard Aegis-equipped missile destroyers was too constrained to give the ships' SM-3 interceptors adequate time to bring down  incoming missiles from the Middle East.

The board found that developers had not proven that sensor technology to be deployed under the program could confirm whether an SM-3 had demolished a missile's warhead as the systems could not tell the difference between a warhead and missile debris.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Ted Postol has contended opponents could defeat U.S. missile defenses by using balloons or other objects to hide the approach of an actual missile.

"If you can't tell tell the difference between a warhead and pieces of debris from an attempted intercept, how are you going to identify a decoy that's designed to fool you?" Postol said.

Meanwhile, GAO auditors said the Pentagon is pursuing antimissile systems that have not yet been found reliable through testing and in doing so is chancing "performance shortfalls, unexpected cost increases, schedule delays and test problems."

The Pentagon is purchasing dozens of SM-3 interceptors even as testing of the technology continues in order to meet an administration aim of deploying the second phase of the phased adaptive approach by 2015, congressional investigators found.

The Government Accountability Office also saw a number of challenges ahead in the development of interceptors that are to be fielded in the last stages of the Obama plan. The rocket motors of the third-phase missile might need to be overhauled after testing revealed a number of problems with the technology. Investigators also found fault with the government for mandating an interceptor trial be held for a next-generation interceptor before engineers will even be able to know whether the technology is workable.

The congressional watchdog said the Obama administration schedule would not complete vetting of a radar set for Romania before deployment.

Republican lawmakers said the analyses' conclusions substantiate their own opinions that the Obama plan was created quickly in order to pacify Russia, which had strongly opposed a previous Bush administration plan for European missile defense. That plan would have fielded long-range interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic; Moscow has criticized both the Obama and Bush initiatives as being covers for undermining Russia's strategic nuclear forces.

"There is a political timeline and agenda that doesn't meet a scientific, development and security timeline," said House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner (R-Ohio). "It does not appear that it can deliver the protection for U.S. homeland that his administration promised."

The White House maintains its phased adaptive approach is progressing according to schedule. Washington and NATO intend to declare an interim capability to defeat missile attacks next month at a summit in Chicago. The administration insists its plan would be more dependable than the Bush-era program as it relies on proven interception technology.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, dismissing the Defense Science Board findings, said the radars would be capable enough to uncover any missile attacks. Agency spokesman Richard Lehner in provided comments said the military intends to enhance the detection capability by fielding new space-based tracking systems over the next nine years.

Lehner admitted that distinguishing between warheads and decoys was still a challenge but that existing antimissile systems are capable of thwarting dangers posed by "rogue nations" and are being enhanced.

Prominent physicist Richard Garwin said issues raised by the board seem to be too severe to be surmounted. "If you would only replace the radars by real radars and you replace the interceptors by faster interceptors and you find some way of discriminating between a warhead and a decoy, then yes, it's a good foundation for moving forward" (Desmond Butler, Associated Press/Google News, April 21).

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Thursday said the alliance was prepared to offer political pledges that the planned missile defense system would not be aimed at Russian ICBMs, the Xinhua News Agency reported (see GSNApril 19).

"Politically, we are ready to reiterate what we said 15 years ago in the founding act (of the NATO-Russia Council) ... Russia and NATO clearly stated that we will not use force against each other and we do not consider each other as threats," Rasmussen said following a meeting of alliance foreign policy heads with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"I think it makes sense to reiterate that very clear statement," Rasmussen said. "We are prepared to do that."

The Russian foreign minister, however, said to journalists that political promises would not be enough to assuage Moscow's concerns. "The final stage (of the system) will pose risks to our nuclear deterrence forces. ... We need clear guarantees that it is [not] targeted against us" (Xinhua News Agency, April 19).

April 23, 2012
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Two reports by U.S. government experts have determined the Obama administration initiative to establish a ballistic missile shield in Europe is beset by radar technology problems, along with potential expense hikes and significant timeline overruns -- raising questions about the overall achievability of the plan, the Associated Press reported on Saturday.