Page 3 of 4   <       >

Obama to Scrap Bush-Era European Missile Shield Plan

President Barack Obama issues a statement Thursday updating the United States' missile defense strategies.

"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. "This poses an increased and more immediate threat to our forces on the European continent, as well as to our allies."

Cartwright said the rapid proliferation of such missiles by both Iran and North Korea drove the decision to change the missile defense strategy.

"The Iranians are starting to field, as have the . . . North Koreans, capabilities associated with intermediate- and medium-range and short-range ballistic missiles in numbers that are substantially larger than could be addressed by 40 or 10 ground-based interceptors," Cartwright said. "We're talking about hundreds."

At the same time, Gates said the intelligence community had lowered its assessment of the danger posed by Iranian long-range missile developments. "The threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006," he said.

Meanwhile, technological advances including better sensors have improved the ability of the U.S. military detect, track and shoot down short- and medium-range missiles using interceptors based on land and on ships at sea, Gates said. One of the main advances has been in the military's Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), which has had eight successful test flights since 2007, he said.

As described by Gates and Cartwright, the new missile defense plan will unfold in three stages. By 2011, the Pentagon will deploy Navy Aegis ships equipped with SM-3 interceptors in the eastern Mediterranean that are linked with sensors, giving the military the ability to defend critical infrastructure and U.S. forces in Europe, Cartwright said.

A second phase in about 2015 will field an upgraded, land-based SM-3 in allied countries, and discussions are underway with Poland and the Czech Republic on basing the missiles in their territory, Gates said. The upgraded SM-3, known as the SM-3 Block 1B, will be coupled with airborne sensors that will expand the covered area threefold, Cartwright said.

In 2018, the third phase will deploy a larger and more capable version of the SM-3, known as SM-3 Block 2, which will allow the missile defense shield "to cover the entire land mass of Europe against intermediate and short-range ballistic missiles," Cartwright said. And by perhaps 2020, that system will be made more powerful to be able to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) fired from Iran at not only Europe but the United States.

However, that future technology is "still to be proven," Cartwright said. For that reason, he said, the U.S. military cannot "abandon or scrap the capabilities that we have today" in the form of ground-based interceptors currently located in Alaska and California to defend the United States against sophisticated ICBM threats.

One advantage of using the SM-3 missiles, Cartwright said, is that they can be used in greater numbers to combat the proliferating missile threat but at lower cost than ground-based interceptors. He said the SM-3s cost $10 to $15 million each, compared to $70 million for each ground-based interceptor.

Three Aegis ships, each capable of carrying about 100 SM-3s, would be deployed at any given time in and around the Mediterranean and the North Sea to protect "areas of interest," Cartwright said, with other ships added as necessary.

The program would also involve the deployment of a mobile, X-band radar in the Caucasus -- the same type of radar currently used in Japan and Israel, he said. In 2012 and 2013, another layer of airborne sensors would be added to the system to improve its reliability and "survivability," he said.

<          3        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company