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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
GAO Sees Flaws in Missile Defense Plan
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Tom Z. Collina

The Obama administration’s plan for missile interceptor deployments in Europe may not be effective against long-range missiles launched at the United States from Iran, a congressionally sponsored study has concluded.

The review, which is based on classified technical reports, found that “modifications are needed” in the way that the system would operate and where it would be based. Those changes could lead to significant safety risks and cost increases, said the study, which was conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

The review looked at the final phase of the Obama administration’s missile defense plan, called the European Phased Adaptive Approach, which was announced in September 2009. A key part of the plan is the deployment of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB interceptors in Poland around 2022. (See ACT, January/February 2013.) The review was requested last September by Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), who at the time was chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, and was presented to the subcommittee Jan. 29. The GAO released the report, which consists of briefing slides and a cover letter on Feb. 11.

The GAO outlined a number of areas in which the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which is part of the Defense Department, may need to revise its plans for the SM-3 IIB. The United States had planned to deploy the missiles in Romania and Poland in order to intercept future long-range missiles launched from Iran, but MDA technical analysts have since found that the Romanian site “was not a good location from a flight path standpoint” for the SM-3 IIB to defend the United States, the GAO said. Based on MDA findings, the site in Poland may “require the development of the ability to launch the interceptor earlier,” namely, during the incoming missile’s boost phase, when its engines are still firing, “to be useful for U.S. homeland defense,” the GAO said.

According to the GAO, the MDA analysis suggested that basing the interceptors on ships in the North Sea would be better than deploying them in Romania or Poland and would not require the early launch of interceptors, as basing them in Poland would. But the MDA found that this option could have “significant safety risks” and would have “unknown, but likely substantial, cost implications,” the GAO said.

“This report really confirms what I have said all along: that this was a hurried proposal by the president,” Turner told the Associated Press on Feb. 9. Turner has said that he wants the United States to revive President George W. Bush’s plan to field larger interceptors in Europe, a plan that President Barack Obama shelved in 2009, as well as build a new missile defense site on the U.S. East Coast.

Given the limitations of the land-based sites in Romania and Poland, the MDA is now requiring that the interceptors also be deployable at sea, the GAO said. Development of the SM-3 IIB is still early in the design phase, and the MDA has not determined whether the interceptor will have liquid propellant in some components. The use of liquid propellant would allow for a faster interceptor, the GAO said.

If liquid propellant is used, however, the Navy, which would deploy the missiles on its Aegis-equipped ships, would be concerned about the risk of fire, the GAO said. Because of such concerns, the Navy banned the use of liquid missile fuels on its ships in 1988. The GAO said that the Navy has not made a final decision on whether it would overturn this ban to allow liquid-fueled interceptors on ships.

According to the GAO, the SM-3 IIB could have a 27-inch diameter, as opposed to the 21-inch diameter for other, slower SM-3 versions that would intercept shorter-range missiles. The wider interceptor would raise costs for the Navy, which would have to outfit its ships with wider launchers, the GAO said. North Sea deployment also would require the Navy to dedicate additional ships to the program, the GAO said.

The Obama administration remains committed to its European deployment plan, a State Department spokesman said by e-mail Feb. 13.

For interceptors that are based in Poland to be effective, the GAO said, they may have to be able to launch shortly after the launch of the attacking missile, while that missile is still in its boost phase, but the actual intercept would not occur until after that phase, when the attacking missile is no longer firing. Intercepting a missile just after boost phase is known as “early intercept.”

Advocates of early intercept have argued that it is a way to avoid the need to differentiate between real warheads and fake ones as they travel through space, which is one of the most significant challenges to intercepting a warhead carried by a long-range missile. If the defense cannot distinguish real warheads from decoys, then it must shoot its limited supply of interceptors at all of them, degrading the system’s effectiveness. In a Feb. 26 e-mail to Arms Control Today, an MDA spokesman said that “by destroying missiles early” in flight, the MDA hopes to avoid “the costs of maintaining a significant number of expensive interceptors to destroy advanced countermeasures in a later phase of a threat missile’s flight.”

Early intercept is a controversial concept, even within the MDA. The GAO found that a 2010 MDA analysis concluded that launch of the interceptor during the boost phase of the attacking missile “was not a desirable capability” as it reduces the effective range of the interceptor. Since then, a 2012 MDA assessment found this capability was “feasible” but would require modifying the SM-3 IIB, missile defense command and control systems, and space-based sensors.

But expert panels of the National Academy of Sciences and the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, have said that early intercept is impractical because interceptors cannot fly fast enough to reach the attacking missile in time. (See ACT, May 2012.)