National Security

Phasing Out

Time for Obama to scuttle the plan to shoot down non-existent Iranian ICBMs.

On March 12, Pentagon policy chief Jim Miller gave a speech on the Obama administration's plans for missile defense in Europe, saying that the first three phases of the system are on track. But, significantly, he did not mention the fourth phase, intended to defend against Iranian ICBMs, which do not yet exist. Then, in response to a question, Miller said, "We are continuing to look very hard at" whether to move forward with phase four or to pursue other options, given budget setbacks and technical issues.

This is welcome news. Until now, the administration has insisted that it would deploy all four phases of what is formally called the European Phased Adaptive Approach; in December 2010, in order to secure approval of the New START treaty, President Obama explicitly promised the Senate he would proceed with the full plan, assuming the Iranian missile threat continued to develop and the interceptor technology proved effective against it. But the United States does not need phase four, and it has become a significant roadblock to Obama's plans to seek another round of nuclear arms reductions with Russia. It is time to shift gears.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that he would renew efforts to seek a second round of nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia, reportedly aiming to cut U.S. strategic forces by about one-third. According to diplomatic sources, Russia wants the United States to cancel phase four in Europe as a condition for arms reduction talks to proceed because it fears that the final phase of the missile defense system could threaten its nuclear deterrent.

The United States should not cancel phase four to appease Russia. The simpler reason is that the United States does not need phase four. Not only does the interceptor missile in question, the SM-3 IIB, have major unresolved technical issues, but the United States has other options to defend itself against future Iranian long-range missiles, should they appear, that are less objectionable to Russia. For example, Washington has an existing, albeit limited, missile defense system in Alaska and California, and Republicans in Congress are calling for a new missile defense deployment site on the East Coast.

Each phase of the administration's European missile defense plan comes with more capable interceptor missiles to keep pace with an evolving Iranian missile program. Phase one, with SM-3 IA short-range interceptors based on U.S. Navy ships and a radar in Turkey, is already deployed in the Mediterranean. Phases two and three, with more-advanced SM-3 interceptors based in Romania (2015) and Poland (2018), are planned to handle medium- and intermediate-range missile threats to Europe.

Phase four, however, is in a different league. The SM-3 IIB interceptor, planned for Poland, is intended to defend the United States -- not Europe -- from an Iranian long-range missile threat that does not yet exist, and is progressing more slowly than many had feared. The SM-3 IIB is planned to be bigger and faster than its predecessors, a SM-3 missile on steroids. But it's already behind schedule. Originally planned for 2020, phase four has been pushed back to 2022 at the earliest due to budget cutbacks imposed by Congress. It exists only on paper, and no ones knows how big it will be, how fast it will go, or where, ultimately, it will be based.

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.

NOEL CELIS/AFP/GettyImages

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