A scientific panel of experts said on Tuesday that the Obama administration’s plan for a phased missile defense in Europe will not adequately protect the United States from the looming threat of an Iranian long-range missile attack.
The report by the National Research Council also calls for revamping the current program to focus on building more capable long-range interceptors and deploying them in an additional base on the East Coast.
"The current homeland defense plan, which consists of GMD [Ground-based Mid-Course Defense] augmented by early intercept capabilities from Europe, is very expensive and has limited effectiveness," the report said.
The report also stated that missile defenses aimed at hitting enemy missiles shortly after launch—a key feature of the administration’s current so-called phased adaptive approach for U.S. and NATO missile defenses in Europe—is too difficult and should be scrapped.
Instead, the panel of experts recommends a new "evolved" GMD system based on a combination of long-range interceptors, which can hit missiles during the mid-course of their flight, and enhanced terminal defenses, which will catch any missiles that leak through the other defenses.
A key House Republican said the report highlights the administration’s poor handling of missile defenses and the need to do more to defend the United States from long-range missile attack.
"As we have seen in report after report, the president’s European phased adaptive approach was ill-conceived and prematurely rolled out by a president more focused on Russia’s concerns than defense of the United States," said Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.
The administration in 2009 cancelled plans by the George W. Bush administration to build a long-range interceptor site in Poland as part of its efforts to develop closer ties to Russia. Moscow, however, has rejected all efforts to reach an agreement on missile defense with the United States.
"The president has invested years and billions of dollars in this system, which leaves us at a strategic disadvantage in countering what is the ultimate goal of nations like Iran and North Korea—missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction to threaten the American people."
Turner said the report validates a section of the fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act that calls for building the third East Coast interceptor site to augment bases in Alaska and California.
A blue-ribbon committee of experts with over 50 years of experience in missile defense conducted the study. L. David Montague, former head of Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., headed the committee.
"For too long, the U.S. has been committed to expensive missile defense strategies without sufficient consideration of the costs and real utility," Montague said in a statement.
Missile Defense Agency spokesman Rick Lehner said the agency has scrapped two boost-phase intercept programs that were in development, the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptors.
As for the current GMD, Lehner said the Alaska and California system "is effective against the type of long-range missile threat we may face from North Korea and Iran, and there are no plans to augment or replace the existing GMD technology with a new interceptor missile or build any new domestic missile defense sites."
On the administration’s phased missile defense, the report urged the first three phases to be clearly distinct from the fourth phase, which it said, "adds little or nothing to the defense of Europe and is aimed primarily at adding an early shot opportunity to enhance the defense of the United States.
Phase 1, set for completion by 2011, included deploying Aegis ships with SM-3 interceptors that will protect parts of southern Europe from intermediate-range missiles. Phase 2 is slated to be done by 2015, and will add SM-3 Block IB interceptors, currently in development, on ships and in land-based silos. The Phase 3 plan calls for a more advanced SM-3 Block 1B to be deployed by 2018.
"Phase 4 is projected to be completed by 2020 and assumes the deployment of an even more advanced SM-3 with better performance," the report said. "It is projected to have an ICBM capability and a kill capability for missiles in the ascent phase, and it will further augment the GMD system for the defense of the United States."
The Pentagon, in a report to Congress made public in July, said Iran could have the technical expertise to flight test its first intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015—five years before the Pentagon’s plan to have interceptors that could knock it down.
Lehner, the MDA spokesman, said the Phase 4 plan "will provide an effective forward-based defense of the U.S. homeland from a future long-range missile threat from Iran, and will complement the deployed GMD system in Alaska and California for effective homeland defense."
The current U.S. GMD system includes about 30 ground-based interceptors (GBIs), located at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, along with a Missile Defense Integrated Operations Center at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, and a GMD Communication Network.
In one of the panel’s major recommendations, the report said the Pentagon should develop a new evolutionary approach that would "provide adequate coverage for defense of the U.S. homeland against likely developments in North Korea and Iran over the next decade or two at an affordable and efficient 20-yr life-cycle cost."
"The evolutionary approach would employ smaller, lower cost, faster burning, two-stage interceptors," the report said.
On missile threats, the report said an ICBM launched from central Iran would reach the United States in 40 minutes, and similar flight durations would apply to threats from North Korea.
The report said long-range missiles, both liquid and solid fueled, can fly faster than shorter-range missile defenses fired from areas nearby the launch sites.
Better missile defenses for the homeland "will take time, money, and careful testing, but unless this is done, the system will not be able to work against any but the most primitive attacks," the report said, noting that currently "missile defense is at a critical point."
The report, "Making Sense of Ballistic Missile Defense: An Assessment of Concepts and Systems for U.S. Boost-Phase Missile Defense in Comparison to Other Alternatives," was required under congressional legislation.
The National Academies of Sciences and the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency commissioned the report.