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US Missile Defense Stumbles Toward Uncertain Threats

Nov. 26, 2013 - 09:33AM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
Third Interceptor Site: Possible East Coast locations for an additional ground-based interceptor site are being examined by the Missile Defense Agency.
Third Interceptor Site: Possible East Coast locations for an additional ground-based interceptor site are being examined by the Missile Defense Agency. (US Missile Defense Agency)
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WASHINGTON — While the debate continues over how soon Iran or North Korea might be able to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could strike the US mainland, the US government is forging ahead with controversial plans to beef up its domestic missile defense capabilities well before any threat has materialized.

In September, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced that in addition to the two ground-based interceptor (GBI) sites it operates in Alaska and California, it has started looking at five potential locations to house a third site in the eastern US.

Inspecting a variety of sites will allow the Pentagon to begin environmental assessments if a skeptical Congress eventually reaches agreement on the project and finds the necessary funding.

The prospective sites at Fort Drum, N.Y.; Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, Vt.; Naval Air Station Portsmouth, Maine; Camp Ravenna, Ohio; and the Fort Custer Training Center, Mich., are all on federal land. The existing GBI sites at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., house a total of 30 missiles, with another 14 to be added at Fort Greely by 2017 at a cost of about $1 billion.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that expanding the ground-based midcourse defense system to the East Coast would cost about $3.5 billion over the next five years.

Boeing acts as the prime contractor that manages the Pentagon’s program to defeat long-range missile threats, while Raytheon and Orbital Sciences have teamed to build both the interceptors and rockets.

The issue of an additional GBI site on the East Cost sparked controversy on Capitol Hill this summer, as Senate Democrats pushed back against congressional Republicans who again included money for the site in their 2013 defense budget markup. The Republicans also attempted to fund the third site in the 2012 budget, but Senate Democrats defeated the measure.

In June, the the Raytheon-made GBI system failed another MDA test, making it the fourth failed test of the capability — each costing about $70 million — since 2010, but the Pentagon insists that it will keep trying.

While the interceptor sites remain embroiled in controversy, several long-term missile tracking and interceptor technologies are ensnared in Pentagon red tape.

Since the late 1990s, the Army has been working on a variety of tethered aerostats that would be capable of tracking incoming missiles. After years of testing, Raytheon won the bid to actually design and build the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) in 2005.

JLENS can reach an altitude of 10,000 feet and stay aloft for 30 days, and its 360-degree sensor package can scan the air, land and sea for up to 340 miles.

But budget pressures and long development times caused the Pentagon to radically scale back the program — which has completed its recent battery of tests — in the fiscal 2013 defense budget. The Army said it would build just two JLENS orbits instead of the 16 it originally wanted, saving the service an estimated $1.75 billion over the next half decade.

That hasn’t stopped the Army from preparing to send the JLENS to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in 2014 to begin three years of tests in the highly congested airspace, roadways and sea lanes of the National Capital Region.

But the inability of Congress to pass a federal budget is putting that testing program at risk. In written testimony Oct. 23 to the House Armed Services Committee, Army acquisition chief Heidi Shyu said that without a full defense budget in 2014, JLENS “cannot meet scheduled construction plans.”

While JLENS continues to exist in a state of suspended — but tethered — animation, the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) developed by the US, Italy and Germany for about US $3.4 billion — with more than $2 billion coming from the United States — continues to move forward. In early November, MEADS, a 360-degree radar and missile system designed to knock down missile threats, intercepted and destroyed two targets simultaneously at the White Sands Missile range in New Mexico.

The only hitch is that after spending billions to develop the technology, the US Army has said it will continue to modernize and upgrade its existing Patriot missile batteries instead of buying MEADS, and the November test was its last.

But the program isn’t completely dead. The Army is assessing potential technologies it might want to “harvest” from MEADS and has promised to submit a report to the Pentagon in the spring outlining what elements of the program it might be able to use.

While all of this work is being done in the face of perceived threats, some perhaps inconvenient geostrategic facts are emerging. In November, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies released a report saying that Iran “is unlikely to have such a weapon before the end of the decade.”

Looking at efforts similar to Iran’s program to develop long-range ICBMs, the study concluded it’s “reasonable to conclude that Iran is unlikely to move on to producing an operational intermediate-range [missile], powered by a 20- to 25-ton first-stage motor within the next five years,” and “an ICBM powered by a first-stage motor in excess of 30 tons would likely require an additional five to 10 years, if not more.”

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