U.S. Sets Missile Defense for Europe, Space

Wade Boese

The Pentagon has plans to deploy missile interceptors in space and Europe over the next several years, even though it requested little or no funding for these activities in its latest budget proposal in February.

Speaking April 11 to a Washington audience, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Lieutenant General Henry Obering said he did not know if space-based missile interceptors would work, but argued they are “worth the experimentation.” The general asserted there was “a lot of attractiveness” about space-based interceptors because of the broad coverage they could provide and their potential quick-response capability to an enemy’s missile launch.

Obering said MDA did not envision an extensive system of thousands of space-based weapons as that planned by the United States during the 1980s. Instead, he ventured that a possible system would number less than 60 space-based interceptors. He said fewer space-based interceptors would be required than previously conceived because they would constitute one layer of a multilayered U.S. defense, not the sole defense.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in a report last July that a sufficient space-based system would require at least 130-1,800 interceptors to protect against missile launches from Iran and North Korea. Similarly, a study by the American Physical Society, which is the largest U.S. society of professional physicists, calculated in July 2003 that roughly 1,600 space-based interceptors would be required to provide full coverage against a missile launch by North Korea, Iraq, or Iran. (See ACT, October 2003.)

MDA is looking to begin exploring space-based interceptors in 2008. The Government Accountability Office, which conducts investigations for lawmakers, reported in March that MDA wants to conduct space-based intercept tests as early as 2012.

Two years ago, the Pentagon had estimated that it would try to have space-based interceptors available for testing by 2008, but then last fall called the concept “too speculative” to warrant consideration as part of an environmental impact study.

Space-based interceptors are domestically and internationally controversial. A Democratic congressional staffer said at the April 11 event that his party could never support space-based interceptors. Indeed, congressional concerns about space weapons led MDA to remove a kill vehicle from a satellite the agency intended to launch in 2006 as part of its Near-Field Infrared Experiment program. That program seeks to analyze exhaust plumes of missiles after their launches. A kill vehicle is the part of a missile interceptor that seeks out and collides with an enemy warhead.

Canada recently rejected U.S. overtures to participate in joint missile defenses out of concern that such activities could lead to weapons in space. (See ACT, April 2005.) In addition, China and Russia have been spearheading efforts to negotiate an agreement on the prevention of an arms race in outer space at the 65-member UN Conference on Disarmament. The United States opposes the proposed negotiations and even formal talks on the subject.

Obering acknowledged that embarking on space-based interceptor research would be contentious, but he welcomed a full debate.

Another potentially divisive plan is the U.S. deployment of long-range missile interceptors to Europe. The administration requested $10 million in February to conduct studies on where to base these interceptors. (See ACT, March 2005.) Last year, Congress substantially cut funding requested to begin their procurement.

Obering said that no European country has yet agreed to host U.S. missile interceptors on its territory. Washington is known to have consulted with the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

Obering implied the delay in solidifying European support might work to MDA’s advantage. Rather than settling on a fixed site of ground-based interceptors, Obering said MDA could field mobile, fast-accelerating, land-based interceptors, which are currently under development as part of the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program and forecasted to begin flight testing in 2008.