Last month, a congressionally-sponsored study based on classified technical reports found that this system may not be effective and that "modifications are needed" to its operational plan and where it would be fielded. Those changes could lead to significant safety risks, cost increases, and schedule delays.
Conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, the Feb. 11 study revealed that the Missile Defense Agency's own technical analysis found that forward deploying SM-3 IIBs in Poland "may require the development of the ability to launch the interceptor earlier," while the attacking missile's engines are still firing, "to be useful for U.S. homeland defense."
This may sound simple, but it's not. Attempting to intercept a missile just after "boost phase," known as "early intercept," is controversial even within MDA, which found in 2010 that it "was not a desirable capability" because it reduces the effective range of the missile. A 2012 MDA assessment found this concept was "feasible," but would require modifying the SM-3 IIB interceptor, command-and-control systems, and space-based sensors.
Outside of MDA, early intercept is seen as impractical. In a Sept. 2011 report, the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, concluded that early intercept "is not a useful objective for missile defense in general or for any particular missile defense system" because interceptors would not be able to reach the target quickly enough. Similarly, a September 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that "even in the best of cases" early intercept does not happen early enough to prevent warheads and decoys from being deployed.
To avoid basing in Poland and the need for early intercept, MDA analysis suggests putting the interceptors on ships in the North Sea. However, GAO found this option could have "significant safety risks" and "unknown, but likely substantial, cost implications."
As for safety, the SM-3 IIB may use a hazardous liquid propellant, which would increase speed and agility. The Navy, however, which would deploy the missiles on its Aegis-equipped ships, banned missiles with liquid fuel in 1988 due to fire hazard concerns. The Navy has not overturned this ban.
As for cost, the SM-3 IIB may need a 27-inch diameter booster, as opposed to the 21-inch diameter of other, slower SM-3 versions. This would be a significant cost issue for the Navy, which would have to outfit its ships with wider launchers. Moreover, a dedicated North Sea deployment would also require the Navy to commit more ships to the program than planned.
In addition, the NAS study found that interceptors based in Europe would require a velocity greater than 5 kilometers per second "to avoid being overflown by modestly lofted threats to the U.S. East Coast," and that such a high speed could not be achieved with a 21-inch diameter missile. But the Academy recommended against fielding such speedy interceptors in Europe as they would also be able to intercept Russian western-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and would "clearly exacerbate political tensions in the region."
Cancelling plans for the SM-3 IIB in Europe would have tremendous benefits for the United States and NATO. Both would benefit from U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenal reductions, in terms of increasing their security, saving money, and gaining more political support against the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists and additional nations. The United States has other options to counter long-range missiles. And, as GAO has shown, the SM-3 IIB's technology, cost, and schedule are dubious in any case. It is time to weed out phase four and let the prospects for U.S.-Russian arms reductions grow.