Yesterday, the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, defended his decision to radically alter the plan to deploy missile defense in Europe. The old plan was to deploy ten ground-based interceptors in silos in Poland supported by a fixed site radar in the Czech Republic. The new plan is to deploy sea-based and then land-based Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptors, with the land-based variants presumably deployed in greater numbers and at more sites supported by additional radars. The Secretary argued that the new plan would address better the current short- and medium-range Iranian missile threat, be ready at least two years sooner and be deployable in greater numbers than the defense envisioned under the old plan.
The Secretary has it half right. It is true that a defense based on the sea-based variant of the SM-3 with the Aegis radar system, called the Aegis BMD system, could be deployed soon. But this was the case regardless of what kind of land-based defense was chosen for Europe. With respect to deploying the SM-3 in a land-based mode, instead of the ground-based interceptors, this is an idea that needs to be proven. The SM-3 will need to operate with a different engagement radar, require a modified launcher, a reworked command and control system and, if it is to engage longer-range, faster flying missiles, a new warhead so it can intercept those missiles outside the atmosphere.
What the Secretary did not say is that his own missile defense plans provided only modest funding to begin the effort to develop a land-based variant of the SM-3, actually reduces the number of sea-based SM-3s to be purchased and does nothing to accelerate development of a more capable variant of the SM-3 in co-development with Japan. In addition, although the Secretary claims that the new plan offers greater flexibility in the event Iran deploys longer-range ballistic missiles, he does not acknowledge that a faster interceptor is needed to engage those Iranian missiles. Gates cancelled development of such a system, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor or KEI, in April.
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