HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is making progress on the planned European missile defense shield and is on track to meet a December 2011 decision point for initial deployment, the agency’s top official said Aug. 18.

The MDA is working to implement a revised plan announced by U.S. President Barack Obama in September 2009 for defending European allies and deployed forces from ballistic missiles. The plan, known as the Phased Adaptive Approach, calls for deploying a network of ballistic missile sensors and shooters in four increasingly capable blocks over the next decade.

In the first phase of the plan, the United States will deploy Aegis ships equipped with Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block 1A interceptors to European waters and place a mobile radar site in southeastern Europe. The Aegis system has a relatively successful flight test record, destroying 18 of 22 targets in testing to date, but it has yet to be tested against the type of medium-range ballistic missiles it is designed to counter for the European shield.

That will change in spring 2011, when the Aegis system will attempt to shoot down a target missile with a 3,000-kilometer range, said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, the MDA’s director. That test is the single biggest hurdle for the system to clear before being certified for initial European deployment in December 2011, O’Reilly said during the Space and Missile Defense Conference here Aug. 16-19.

“As the president has said, he’s not going to deploy capability until it’s been properly tested,” O’Reilly told reporters during a media briefing. “To me, that’s one of the key steps.”

If the system is certified, it will be up to the commander of U.S. European Command, Navy Adm. James Stavridis, to request ships be deployed to European waters, O’Reilly said. The Joint Chiefs of Staff will then decide how many ships will be deployed and where.

“We have the flexibility, so it could be four ships at some periods of time, [or] it could be down to two ships,” he said. “We commit to when we’re going to deliver these capabilities, and then it falls under the traditional force allocation process that the Joint Chiefs operate.”

Under the second phase of the Phased Adaptive Approach, the United States in 2015 will deploy the upgraded SM-3 Block 1B interceptor on Aegis ships, as well as land basing the missiles for the first time in Romania. The second phase of the plan will not significantly increase the geographic coverage of the system, but it will provide better discrimination and the ability to handle  larger raids of missiles, O’Reilly said.

In the third phase, scheduled for 2018, the United States plans to deploy a second SM-3 battery in Poland, and deploy the first SM-3 Block 2A missiles that are being co-developed with Japan. The missiles feature twice as much propellant as previous versions and will provide a larger coverage umbrella, O’Reilly said.

The fourth phase of the plan, scheduled for 2020, will incorporate a number of technologies that are only now being conceived. One of the keys to a truly effective regional missile defense system is persistent infrared detection and tracking of enemy missiles, O’Reilly said. The MDA since December has been observing all of its missile defense tests with unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with infrared sensors. These demonstrations have been surprisingly successful in detecting and tracking missile launches from distances of more than 1,000 kilometers, he said.

The MDA also is planning an operational constellation of missile tracking satellites for the same purpose. The agency plans to launch one or two prototype satellites in 2015 before fielding an operational constellation of 12 satellites in 2018.

The fourth phase of the European shield also will rely on a longer-range interceptor missile capable of defeating intercontinental ballistic missiles. The MDA is preparing to hold a competition and in 2011 will select three firms to do missile concept studies to determine what size booster, kill vehicle and attitude control system it will use. In 2013 the agency will choose one of the three contractors to develop the missile for deployment in 2020, O’Reilly said.