by Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
A congressionally-requested report on the current U.S. missile-defense system says the best way to meet future threats from Iran or North Korea is to place upgraded missiles and improved radars on both coasts of the U.S.
The current U.S. system is "very expensive and has limited effectiveness," said the report from the National Research Council, which offers advice to government agencies under a congressional charter.
Fashioned amid tensions with North Korea over the last two decades, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's system now has 30 interceptor missiles ready to launch from bases in Alaska and California, as well as smaller ship-based systems aboard the U.S. Navy's Pacific and Atlantic Fleet.
"The system only has a very limited ability to defend the U.S. from missiles other than ones from North Korea," said missile expert L. David Montague, who co-chaired the report panel, asked by Congress in 2009 to assess U.S. missile defense. The report also weighs in on the best strategy for shooting down incoming missiles, suggesting the nation should target enemy missiles in mid-course -- high above Earth's atmosphere -- which would provide more time to identify the threats and shoot down incoming missiles with multiple attempts.
The report strongly criticizes past proposals to build "boost-phase" interceptors that aim to destroy missiles in their first minute of launch, when firing rockets make them identifiable. That's simply too short a time to be workable for interceptors, the report suggests. Such boost-phase plans were killed by the Obama Administration in 2010, "but they keep coming back like a bad penny," Montague said.
Instead the report calls for:
Faster interceptor missiles with improved sensors, with 30 based on each coast. to cover the threat from Iran as well as North Korea.
Construction of five new "X-band" radar system bases better able to discriminate decoy warheads from real ones.
An East Coast missile defense base perhaps in Fort Drum, N.Y., or Maine.
Canceling a proposed Missile Defense Agency satellite sensor system, estimated at around $27 billion, and other unneeded programs would keep the cost of the defenses to around the $10 billion annually budgeted on such defenses through 2016, the report says. A key part of the plan would rely on sensors aboard the first interceptors fired, and satellites already in orbit, to provide targeting information to follow-up interceptors. "The technology exists we believe, with some qualifications," Montague said.
"We are committed to midcourse missile defense," MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said by e-mail. The agency has sent a letter critical of the report's cost estimate for its proposed satellite sensor system to a Senate committee.
The "recommendation to not waste any more money on boost phase missile defense is correct. It's something that has been recommended by other experts for years," said Philip Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C. The times for interceptors to reach just-launched missiles before they stop firing, "are just too short," he said, echoing the report. An elaborate constellation of warning satellites aimed at providing more warning time for such "boost" phase interceptors would cost $500 billion, the panel estimated.
However, the midcourse interceptors promoted by the report also face critics, who suggest that heat signatures and decoy warheads from attackers would overwhelm interceptors trying to pick out a real incoming missile. "Another East Coast site and newer interceptors is merely re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington, D.C. "Such band-aid solutions that do not address the fundamental countermeasures (and) decoys issue will only give us a false sense of security, while simultaneously giving Russia and China a false sense of insecurity."
"That is not nearly as good an argument (against) countries like North Korea or Iran with limited resources," said Walter Slocombe, a former Defense Department official and the other co-chair of the study, which explicitly did not look at missile defenses against major nuclear powers such as China or Russia. Decoys are not easy to work as critics assume, he argues.