Less than a year ago, the Obama Administration cancelled plans for the so-called Third Site ground-based missile defense in Europe arguing that the near-term threat did not warrant deployment of a high-end defensive capability. Instead, the administration declared that it was pursuing a phased adaptive approach to missile defenses that would only deploy those capabilities needed to deal with the threat as it emerged. Only a few months ago, the administration published its Ballistic Missile Defense Review validating a new strategy for the defense of Europe based on a different system built around the Aegis ship-based missile defense system with the Standard Missile (SM) 3. Now, just weeks later, it is reported that U.S. intelligence believes that Iran could deploy an ICBM, capable of hitting the United States by 2015. This is also about the time that Western sources estimate that Iran could have a nuclear weapon. The administration’s carefully devised strategy, intended to appeal to U.S. arms controls and Russian militarists alike, looks to be coming apart.
The current defense of Europe rests on the deployment of a limited number of U.S. Aegis-equipped ships with the SM-3 Block 1B. This system will be able to defend against shorter range ballistic missiles but not ICBMs. The defense of the United States rests on 30 Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs); 26 based in Alaska and 4 in California. In theory this allows for defense of the United States, but not Europe, in the face of an attack of as many as 15 ICBMs (using the standard firing doctrine of shoot-look-shoot again against each missile). However, because of the location of the interceptors, the Southeast coast would require a different firing doctrine that could easily reach four or more GBIs per ICBM (shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot) because of the short time available for an intercept. This means that our defenses would be exhausted if it faced more than a handful of Iranian missiles.
So confident was the Obama Administration in its phased adaptive approach that it decided not even to deploy the full complement of GBIs. It also cancelled the only potential candidates for early intercept of long-range ballistic missiles, the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor. Moreover, it did not plan for the need to defend Europe soon against a long-range missile threat. The U.S. plan envisioned no need to defend Europe against an ICBM before 2020. Even then, the ability to do so depended on the successful development, testing and deployment of a new SM-3 variant, the Block 2B missile and on successful deployment of a shore based variant of the Aegis radar and command and control system.
The Obama Administration finds itself ill-prepared to address a potential near-term Iranian ICBM threat. Moreover, Moscow has made it very clear that both the new START treaty and future nuclear arms control agreements are dependent on the United States not moving too far and too fast on missile defenses. Recent testimony before Congress by the head of the Missile Defense Agency revealed that the best the administration could do between now and 2015 was, first, to deploy eight additional GBIs into existing but unfilled silos and, second, to speed up development and testing of an advanced, faster, two-stage variant of the GBI, a missile that had been intended for deployment at the Third Site.
The mounting evidence that Teheran is closer than heretofore believed to successfully developing both a nuclear weapon and an ICBM may explain growing reports in the press that the United States is considering strategies for living with a nuclear-armed Iran. This may also explain reports that Israel is making preparations to strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. If Iran had a nuclear-equipped ICBM, every Israeli would have to ask the question would a U.S. president be willing to trade New York for Tel Aviv. Of course, the governments of Great Britain, France, Germany and all our other European allies would be asking themselves the same question. And without adequate missile defenses of the U.S., the answer just might be no.
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