Editorial | Missile Defense that Makes Sense

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A recent report by the U.S. National Research Council offers a sound, objective foundation for shaping the U.S. missile defense program, which is being pushed in different, and not necessarily the most prudent, directions by the White House and Congress.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s primary thrust is the European Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), which leverages the existing Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system to defend European allies and forward-deployed troops against an emerging Iranian threat. The PAA relies initially on the sea-based Standard Missile-3 interceptor, now operational aboard U.S. Navy vessels, and calls for placing land-based variants and radars on European soil that eventually would augment U.S. territorial defenses. The PAA replaced former U.S. President George W. Bush’s European strategy, which was to deploy two-stage versions of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptor — the pointy end of the current U.S territorial shield — and a tracking radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively.

Congressional Republicans have criticized the PAA and are pushing for the installation of ground-based interceptors in the eastern United States, an idea in which the Obama administration has shown little interest. GMD interceptors are currently installed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska, under a program that was inherited by the president.

The National Research Council report, released Sept. 11, provides a refreshingly frank appraisal of the PAA and GMD. The planned final phase of the PAA will not be cost-effective as an enhancement to the U.S. territorial shield, while the existing GMD also has limitations, particularly when it comes to protecting the eastern part of the country, the report said.

The report also throws cold water on boost-phase missile defense concepts — it was commissioned specifically to examine this area — as well as on a proposed constellation of missile tracking satellites in low Earth orbit. Boost-phase defenses, in which the Bush administration invested substantially, are impractical for a plethora of reasons, while the proposed Precision Tracking Satellite System constellation would be hugely expensive and of marginal utility, the report said.

Naturally, those who tend to feel strongly about missile defense — one way or the other — had completely different reactions to the report.

For example, a pair of scientists with a history of challenging what they see as exaggerated claims of U.S. missile defense capabilities went to some lengths to discredit the report. In a broadside published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, George Lewis and Theodore Postol said the study is deeply flawed and cannot serve as a basis for missile defense policy formulation.

Interestingly, given their well-established pattern of skepticism of all things missile defense, the article’s authors took aim at the report’s main conclusion about the efficacy of boost-phase systems. But in pursuing that line of attack, Messrs. Lewis and Postol undermined their own credibility: They slammed the report for neglecting to consider boost-phase interceptors that can reach speeds of 10 kilometers per second, but omitted the fact that there are no such systems. They cited a 2004 study by the American Physical Society that “mentioned” interceptors capable of flying at 10 kilometers per second — never mind that the study questioned their feasibility — but failed to note that it drew the same conclusion about boost-phase defenses as the latest report.

Then there was U.S. Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee and a frequent critic of Obama administration defense policies, who also missed the mark in touting the report as a repudiation of the PAA. In fact, the report’s criticism was directed specifically at the final phase of the PAA, which is supposed to field a forward-based augmentation to U.S. territorial defenses. Moreover, the report said the European strategy that was abandoned in favor of the PAA had serious drawbacks and limitations of its own.

Rep. Turner also went too far in saying the report validates the House version of the 2013 defense authorization bill, which calls for establishment of an East Coast missile defense interceptor site before 2016. While the report indeed touted the protective benefits of an East Coast site, its authors were careful to point out that to be effective it would have to be outfitted with a new high-speed interceptor topped by a lightweight kill vehicle in addition to X-band radars. The interceptor alone would require a big investment in a tight fiscal environment, and the site certainly would not be in place before the end of 2015.

A wiser near-term investment of U.S. defense resources would focus on improving the overall missile defense architecture’s ability to discriminate between incoming missile warheads and decoys or debris; the report made clear that target discrimination remains a stubborn problem that undermines the effectiveness of defenses regardless of where they’re deployed. To address the issue, the report called for beefing up ground-based early warning installations with new X-band radars and better fusion of the resulting data with data from optical sensors aboard interceptors, something that seems financially feasible in the next few years. Resolving the target discrimination conundrum would strengthen the case for investing in East Coast interceptors, which otherwise might well be shooting in the dark.