Monday, March 4, 2013

Prospects Questionable for Next-Gen ICBM Interceptor

 The capstone of the Obama administration’s plan for missile defense in Europe appears increasingly imperiled in the face of government and independent reports that raise serious doubts about its feasibility as well as a growing impatience by U.S. lawmakers for weapons programs with questionable utility.

The Standard Missile 3 Block 2B interceptor is today envisioned as being deployed on the continent no earlier than 2022 under the fourth and final stage of the U.S. “phased adaptive approach.” The advanced interceptor is planned to have the capacity to defeat medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles heading toward Europe as well as first-generation ICBMs fired against the continental United States from Iran.

Congressional appropriators from the president’s own party have sought to strip the Block 2B project of hundreds of millions in funding. There is also a potentially competing proposal to base an existing class of ICBM interceptors on the U.S. East Coast.

“Both of those programs are repetitive. They’re not going to do both of them,” said Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

The 2B interceptor has yet to get off the drawing board. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, which manages the development and acquisition of most U.S. antimissile technologies, toward the end of last year announced it would delay until spring 2014 a call for 2B project development proposals from contractors.

Agency spokesman Rick Lehner said by e-mail on Thursday work on “concept definition” -- identification of specific program parameters -- was still under way for a select group of defense contractors and that there are no plans to halt the project.  Lehner said he did not have any information on how sequestration, which is to slash $46 billion from remaining fiscal 2013 funding from the Pentagon, would impact the initiative.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found it would be difficult to effectively deploy the next-generation interceptor in Europe.

Initial plans under an August 2010 system concept review were to install the Block 2B at bases in both Romania and Poland. However, subsequent studies by MDA officials found that “the Romania site was not a good location from a flight path standpoint” for the Block 2B to have a chance at defending the United States, according to Congress’ investigative arm.

While Poland was not ruled out as a hosting point, MDA analyses found the interceptor would likely have to be launched while the enemy missile was in its early phase of flight in order to reach the right altitude for blocking an attack on the United States.

The U.S military does not currently have a “boost phase” intercept capability. A congressionally ordered report by the National Research Council concluded last year that there was too little real-world utility for boost-phase intercept to justify the expense of developing and acquiring the technology.

A Block 2B system that could be fired from Navy vessels in the North Sea would be more suitable than Polish or Romanian sites for defending the United States. The interceptor would also not need to be fired in the opening moments of the enemy missile's flight. However, if powered by liquid propellant to make it faster, the weapon could be unsafe for fielding on a warship due to fire hazards, the GAO investigation found.

The 2B interceptor has “always been somewhat of an aspiration in my view,” Michael Elleman, a senior fellow for regional security cooperation with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a Thursday phone interview from Bahrain.

Democrats have serious reservations about the interceptor. In 2011, the Democratic-led Senate Appropriations Committee voted to transfer development funding for Block 2B to older-generation SM-3 variants designed to defeat nonstrategic ballistic missiles, according to an issue analysis by the Heritage Foundation. In August, the panel moved to further cut $169 million in fiscal 2013 funding from the program. A defense appropriations act for the current budget year has yet to be approved by Congress.

In light of these woes, Elleman said it might be better for the United States to examine alternatives for protecting the mainland from long-range missiles fired from the Middle East. That could involve a third interceptor site for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System.

The GMD system now features long-range interceptors in Alaska and California that are chiefly aimed at defending against the evolving long-range ballistic missile threat from North Korea. Republican lawmakers last year successfully included in a defense spending authorization law a requirement that the Pentagon include at least two Eastern U.S. sites in a study on establishing a third GMD interceptor installation.

Additionally, GMD interceptors based on the East Coast would have a greater time window for destroying an incoming missile than a Block 2B missile fired from Poland. This could allow multiple rounds of intercept attempts to be made if the initial attempts are unsuccessful, the NRC report found.

Republicans said a third GMD interceptor site would be critical for protecting the country against an Iranian ICBM attack. Iran, though, is not presently assessed by congressional researchers to be anywhere close to having such a strategic missile capability, which raises the question on why any ICBM defense should be established against that threat at this point -- either in Europe or the United States.

“If that is the threat you are worried about, [the Iranians] are still years away from creating an intercontinental missile,” Elleman said. “They haven’t even finished developing their medium-range missiles let alone their intermediate range missiles.”

There would be little sense in the military deploying GMD interceptors on the East Coast and Block 2B missiles in Europe, Ellison agreed.

While asserting the Block 2B is still a viable concept, Ellison said he believes the project is going to be “pushed down a little further and I think they are going to wait to see the [study] results of the third site in the United States.”

The Obama administration’s ambitions for the Block 2B have thrown a major wrench in efforts to improve strategic relations with Russia, which views the next-generation interceptor as well as its cousin, the SM-3 Block 2A, as serious threats to its nuclear-armed missiles.

Moscow refuses to accept verbal assurances by Obama officials that the SM-3 family of interceptors is not technically capable of challenging advanced Russian ICBMs. The imbroglio over U.S. plans for European missile defense has gotten in the way of White House hopes for new bilateral arms control negotiations that would build upon the headway made with the New START accord.

Arms control experts Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution and James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace contend that the Obama administration should declare to Russia  it will not move forward with Block 2B development until U.S. intelligence affirms Iran is significantly advancing its strategic missile capabilities. If this does not happen, there would be no need to build the ICBM interceptor, they say.

The Obama administration’s own former special envoy for missile defense discussions with Russia, Ellen Tauscher, late last year said this could very well happen.  “You know I’m not too sure the 2B would go to Europe,” she said at a think tank event in Washington. “I bet if the Iranians are still busily being bad, 2B will be in Europe. But, if all of a sudden things change and no long-range rocket, no nuclear weapon out of Iran, that changes things.”

“The State Department and Russia will be involved in this,” Ellison predicted of any decision whether to proceed with Block 2B.

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