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Pentagon Shifts Gears on Missile Defense
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Tom Z. Collina

Removing a major roadblock to Russian support for another round of nuclear arms reductions, the Department of Defense last month effectively canceled the fourth phase of its plans to deploy missile interceptors in Europe over the next decade.

At a March 15 press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that, under a “restructuring” of the European program, the Pentagon would redirect funding to field an additional 14 ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles in Alaska by 2017 to address rising nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

Citing the U.S. need to “stay ahead” of North Korea’s “irresponsible and reckless provocations,” including a satellite launch last December, a nuclear test in February, and the development of “what appears to be a road-mobile ICBM,” or intercontinental ballistic missile, Hagel said the United States would increase the number of missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, from 30 to 44; deploy a second X-band radar in Japan, which had been previously announced; conduct environmental studies for a potential additional interceptor site in the United States, as directed by Congress; and cancel the last of the four phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense system, which would have fielded interceptors in Poland to shoot down any future long-range missiles launched from Iran.

Congressional Republicans, who have been critical of the Obama administration’s missile defense policies, generally praised the announcement. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News on March 17 that he “applaud[s] the efforts,” but added he would support a new missile defense site on the East Coast and said he had concerns about canceling the fourth phase of the planned European deployment. At the same time, he said, “I don’t think that threat is imminent—I don’t think [North Korea has] the delivery mechanisms that are necessary to really harm us.”

A group of 19 House Republicans sent a March 19 letter to Hagel saying the additional interceptors in Alaska are “welcome and long overdue” but that the lawmakers were “concerned about the decision to terminate” the fourth phase. They called on Hagel to include $250 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget for 20 interceptors at a new East Coast site.

Russian Reaction

Moscow had seen the U.S. intention to deploy the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB in Poland as a potential threat to its ICBMs based in western Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama announced in February that he would resume efforts to seek additional reductions in nuclear stockpiles with Russia, but Moscow said that its concerns about U.S. missile defense plans had to be resolved first. (See ACT, March 2013.)

Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said March 20 in prepared remarks in Geneva that the United States now is “exploring what a future [nuclear arms control] agreement with Russia might look like.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov met with U.S. officials in Geneva on March 18 and 19 for talks on issues that included the March 15 missile defense announcement, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russian officials have so far taken a wait-and-see approach to the Pentagon’s new plans. “There is no unequivocal answer yet to the question of what consequences all this can have for our security,” Ryabkov told reporters March 21 in Russia. “The causes for concern have not been removed, but dialogue is needed—it is in our interest and we welcome the fact that the American side also, it appears, wants to continue this dialogue.”

Moscow has been seeking a legally binding commitment that the United States would not use interceptors based in Europe to target Russia’s ICBMs. U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon reportedly will visit Moscow April 15 to discuss missile defense with senior Russian officials, and Hagel is expected to travel to Moscow in late May to continue discussions.

Troubled Development

Administration officials said the decision to cancel the fourth phase of the European deployment was not based on Russian opposition, but on the fact that deployment of the SM-3 IIB interceptor had been delayed from 2020 to at least 2022 due to congressional funding cuts. Hagel said that, by shifting resources “from this lagging program” to the additional GBIs missiles, “we will be able to add protection against missiles from Iran sooner.”

Iran does not yet have long-range missiles that can reach the United States; the U.S. intelligence community has said Tehran could develop this capability by 2015 with significant foreign assistance, although a report last December from the Congressional Research Service said Tehran’s ability to meet that target date “is increasingly uncertain,” in part because Iran is not receiving sufficient help from China and Russia.

The SM-3 IIB, which exists only on paper and, with Hagel’s decision, has been downgraded to a technology development program, has been facing a number of problems. A study released in February by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the SM-3 IIB might not be effective without changes to its operational plan, which in turn could lead to significant safety risks, cost increases, and schedule delays. Last September, a major technical report by a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel recommended canceling the fourth phase of the planned missile interceptor deployment because it was not the most effective way to defend the United States against potential Iranian missile strikes. (See ACT, October 2012.)

At the press conference, Hagel said the Pentagon would continue the other phases of its European plan, which include currently deployed, shorter-range SM-3 interceptors on Aegis-equipped Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea and future land-based deployments in Romania in 2015 and Poland in 2018.

Walter Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense for policy who co-chaired the NAS study, said in a March 18 interview that dropping the fourth phase was “a good step” because newly developed interceptors deployed on the East Coast could counter future Iranian ICBM launches more effectively than the SM-3 IIB could from Europe.

Slocombe questioned the administration’s decision to put additional interceptors in Alaska, saying it was “not a very good thing to do in the long run, since it’s the same old stuff in the same old place.” The NAS panel was sharply critical of the current 30-interceptor system deployed on the West Coast, which it described as “fragile” and ineffective against “any but the most primitive attacks.” The system has not had a successful intercept test since 2008, missing twice in 2010.

Fly Before You Buy

Acknowledging the GBI system’s shortcomings, Hagel said that he would not deploy the additional 14 interceptors, which will cost about $1 billion, “until we are sure that we have the complete confidence that we will need.” Speaking at the same press briefing, James Miller, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said the Pentagon would “stick with our fly-before-you-buy approach.” Noting that the GBI missile’s kill vehicle, called the Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II), has had “a couple of test failures,” Miller said the Pentagon would conduct an intercept test this year. A successful nonintercept test was conducted in January.

The CE-II kill vehicle, which is the object that is supposed to collide with an incoming warhead in space, was fielded in 2008 and is currently deployed on 10 of the 30 GBI missiles in Alaska and California, according to a March 2011 GAO report. The other 20 GBI missiles are armed with CE-I kill vehicles, which were fielded from 2004 to 2007 and still are in place today. But the CE-II was not used in an intercept test until January and December 2010, and it failed both times. As a result, in 2011 the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) suspended additional CE-II deployments and said that fielded GBI missiles armed with CE-IIs would not be considered operational until a successful intercept test. The MDA later found a flaw in the guidance system of the Raytheon-made CE-II.

The Pentagon is going to conduct flight tests of the CE-I this summer and “hopefully flight-test the CE-II after we build it this fall,” Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the March 15 briefing. Miller said that if the modified CE-II is successful, the Pentagon would “make changes to those CE-IIs that are currently in place, and then the new ground-based interceptors would also be [outfitted with] CE-IIs.”

Even if the next intercept tests are successful against simple, intermediate-range targets, they are not expected to test the system’s effectiveness against ICBM threats or countermeasures such as decoys. The GAO has said that the capability of the two kill vehicles against decoys “has not been validated” and that tests against ICBMs will not occur until 2015 or later.

China, which is North Korea’s main ally and has repeatedly criticized the U.S. missile defense program as a threat to strategic stability, did not welcome Hagel’s announcement. “Strengthening anti-missile deployments and military alliances can only deepen antagonism and will be of no help to solving problems,” Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Beijing on March 18.