2012 has already demonstrated signs that it will be a year of significant progress in the development and deployment of missile defenses. Just last week, the Missile Defense Agency conducted a successful test of its next in a series of improved ballistic missile interceptors, the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IB. The new and improved version of the SM-3 has a 2 color imaging infrared seeker that is better able to find an incoming ballistic missile as well as a more agile engine on the kill vehicle that makes an actual intercept both more likely and effective. The SM-3 Block IB is vital to the realization of the second phase of the Obama Administration’s four-phased plan to deploy a network of highly-capable theater missile defenses. Follow-on phases involve larger and more powerful variants of the SM-3 family with improved kill vehicles, enhanced sensors and better battle management.
Another sign of real progress on missile defense was last month’s successful test by NATO of an integrated missile defense capability. The United States provided most of the capability employed in this exercise. However, the U.S. systems were networked through a NATO command and control system with sensors and interceptors from other NATO countries. While even NATO leaders acknowledge that this is only a limited capability it is an important step forward. It is also a good example of “Smart Defense,” the NATO concept for squeezing more capability out of the array of different and even overlapping and redundant capabilities in the 28 nation Alliance by pooling resources and exercising jointly. A critical next step will be if NATO allies actually make good on their promises to upgrade their missile defense capabilities. An even better sign would be if several of these countries that are capable already of operating the air defense variant of the Standard Missile would also acquire the new missile defense version.
The third sign was the vote by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) to take initial steps towards building a missile defense base on the East Coast. The current national missile defense system is limited to interceptors at Fort Greeley, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. In theory, these two sites can defend virtually all the United States against a limited ICBM attack, the engagement time lines are very stressing against a weapon launched from the Middle East and targeted at the East Coast. There would be almost no chance of taking multiple shots against such a threat. A third interceptor base on the East Coast would improve the odds of being able to successfully intercept an incoming weapon. While there is little chance that the HASC vote will make it through the Senate, it is the beginning of a discussion on the requirements to reliably defend the U.S. homeland against future ballistic missile threats.
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