Obama Shifts Gears on Missile Defense

By Harvey, Cole | Arms Control Today, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Obama Shifts Gears on Missile Defense


Harvey, Cole, Arms Control Today


The Obama administration announced Sept. 17 that it will not develop a planned missile interceptor field in Poland and radar facility in the Czech Republic, as envisioned by the Bush administration. Instead, the United States will implement a new missile defense program, designed around the Navy's Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), to counter short- and mediumrange Iranian missiles, according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In announcing the change, President Barack Obama said that the new missile defense architecture in Europe "will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies" than the Bush-era plan.

The decision comes as a wider review of U.S. ballistic missile defense policy is nearing completion. According to Obama, it was the unanimous recommendation of Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their recommendation was driven in part by a new analysis of the threat posed by Iranian missile capabilities. "The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran's short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab-3, is developing more rapidly than previously projected," Gates said at a Sept. 17 press conference. At the same time, Gates said, "the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006." The new system is designed to focus on quickly addressing threats to Europe and U.S. military personnel deployed in the region, rather than on longer-term threats to the United States, he said.

Gates also said advances in missile defense technology enable the United States to rely on a distributed system of sensors, rather than the single radar site slated for the Czech Republic, to detect incoming missiles. Similarly, Gates cited the flexibility and proven test record of the SM-3 as a replacement for the ground-based interceptors planned for Poland.

The United States expects to deploy sea-based SM-3 Block IA interceptors to the region in 2011, six or seven years before the Polish and Czech sites would have been completed, according to Gates. The system would be upgraded in phases, with the SM-3 Block IB being deployed on land as well as at sea in 2015. The land-based interceptors would be stationed at two bases, one in northern Europe and another in the south, a senior administration official said at a Sept. 21 briefing for nongovernmental organizations.

In 2018 the United States would deploy the more advanced SM3 Block IIA to the European land bases and partially replace the older interceptors at sea, the administration official said. The IIA model will be capable of defending the entire landmass of Europe from short- and intermediate-range missiles, according to Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Gates at the Sept. 17 press conference. In 2020 the Block HB version of the SM-3 interceptor, currently in development, would be installed. Unlike the other SM-3 versions, the Block IIB is intended to be capable of intercepting ICBMs that could threaten the United States.

Cartwright elaborated on the changed U.S. perception of the Iranian missile threat, saying, "We built the original system on the idea of a rogue-nation threat: three to five missiles that could come from either North Korea or Iran. The reality is, we're dealing with hundreds of missiles in the [intermediate-] and mediumrange capabilities.... What you can do with an SM-3 in affordability and in deployment and dispersal is substantially greater for larger numbers of missiles than what we have with a groundbased interceptor." Under the new plan, two or three Aegis ships armed with missile interceptors would normally patrol the Mediterranean and North Sea, Cartwright said, and additional ships could be added as necessary. Each vessel can carry approximately 100 SM-3 interceptors, according to Cartwright.

The Obama administration intends the new missile defense effort to be a multinational one.

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