New Missile Defense Plan Relies on Navy Interceptors
The prime target during the Reagan era was Russian missiles. A scaled-down defensive system recently proposed by the Obama administration would aim to shoot down warheads from Iran, which has heightened concerns by building a clandestine uranium enrichment plant and test firing missiles this week with a range of up to 1,200 miles.
But even as the U.S. prepares to meet on Thursday with Iranian officials in Geneva over the regime's nuclear ambitions, the administration's reliance on missile defense to guard against the unthinkable still amounts to a gamble.
Components of the latest system have done well in controlled test environments, but the new plan relies heavily on radars and ship-based interceptors that haven't endured real battle conditions.
"We're not building all these missile defense systems because we're worried about Iran firing a rocket with TNT on it," said Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's chief of weapons testing from 1994 to 2001. "We're worried about nuclear weapons, and nobody knows whether missile defenses can work with nuclear weapons going off."
The American military's use of ballistic missile defense systems in actual combat has had only limited success, fired against crude Iraqi rockets with conventional explosive payloads during two different wars in the Persian Gulf.
President Barack Obama announced Sept. 17 that he was scrapping plans made by the Bush White House to put 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic. The silo-encased interceptors, each about 55 feet long and weighing 14 tons, were intended to shoot down Iranian missiles able to strike the United States or Europe.
The interceptors proposed by Bush wouldn't be on station until 2017 or later, Obama administration officials said. With updated intelligence assessments indicating Iran is making less progress on long-range missiles than previously thought and going faster on shorter range missiles like those test earlier this week, a new and more immediate approach was required.
The centerpiece of the Obama strategy is the Navy's Standard Missile-3, which is built by defense contracting giant Raytheon.
Pentagon officials say the 21-foot missile, known in military parlance as the SM-3 Block 1A, has had eight successful flight tests since 2007. When linked to advanced sensors and radars, they say the SM-3 is the most technically advanced and cost effective way to counter Iran's anticipated arsenal.
But those claims are being challenged by an odd couple -- Republican backers of the Bush plan and nonprofit groups skeptical of most missile defense systems.
David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., said the SM-3 has not been tested under real-world conditions and remains vulnerable to balloons and other decoys any thinking adversary is certain to use.
"I don't think you can really count on any missile defense system at this point," added John Issacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.
Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the SM-3 costs about $10 million a copy and upgraded versions would run in the $13 million to $15 million range. By comparison, the much larger ground-based interceptors slated for Poland cost about $70 million each.
According to Cartwright, the Navy interceptor's price tag and mobility make it the weapon of choice should Iran fire multiple missiles at once.
But Obama's detractors say it might be the more expensive option when construction and long-term operational expenses are factored in. A February report from the Congressional Budget Office determined the Bush plan would have cost between $9 billion and $13 billion over 20 years. Relying primarily on the Navy interceptors at sea would run between $18 billion and $26 billion over the same period, the budget office said, with the bulk of the increase coming from the additional ships that would be required.
What's unclear, though, is how much of that additional expense is new. More than a year before the president's announcement, the Navy said it was expanding the number of its Aegis cruisers and destroyers that are to be equipped for ballistic missile defense operations from 18 to at least 67, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Defense officials also say eventually putting the SM-3s on land, as the Obama plan calls for, greatly reduces the overall price tag.
Republicans aren't sold. "I have questions about these cost issues," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said at a Sept. 24 congressional hearing on missile defense.
The Navy interceptor is equipped with a "hit-to-kill" warhead that is designed to destroy an incoming ballistic missile's warhead by colliding with it outside the earth's atmosphere.
The SM-3 grabbed the spotlight in February 2008 when one of the missiles was launched from a Navy cruiser in the Pacific and shot down a failing U.S. satellite in space.
Beginning in 2011, as many as three Aegis ships each loaded with up to 100 SM-3s would be on patrol in the Mediterranean and the North Sea at any given time, according to Obama's plan. Between 2015 and 2020, the plan calls for using land-based versions of the SM-3, expanding the area the missile and its networked sensors can defend.
The development effort will culminate with an interceptor that's able to defeat long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles heading toward the United States.
Ohio congressman Michael Turner, the top Republican on the House strategic forces subcommittee, said that this latest version of the SM-3 "doesn't exist" yet and Congress has yet to be told how the administration plans to pay for it.
"Whatever the details, it is not clear that this new plan represents a less technically risky approach that protects Europe and the U.S. sooner and more comprehensively, as the administration asserts," Turner said at a recent missile defense conference in Boston.