September 1, 2013  

Challenges for territorial missile defense

U.S. and Europe face a growing number of potential threats

By Ben Sheppard

In April, North Korea claimed it could attack the U.S. with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. That same month, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) declared — with “moderate confidence” — that Pyongyang may have a nuclear weapon small enough to fit atop a ballistic missile. All this refocused attention on the U.S. homeland ballistic missile defense (BMD) program. But how credible are the threats the U.S. is likely to face, and how does the revised missile defense strategy unveiled by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in March affect the road ahead, including strategic relations with Russia and China? Furthermore, what key challenges face NATO Europe’s territorial missile defense program with the revised structure?

U.S. missile defence

At the end of the Cold War, U.S. homeland BMD was scaled back, from the ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative outlined by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, to a series of research programs prioritizing theatre missile defense. In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the Missile Defense Act to deploy a National Missile Defense (NMD) system “as soon as it is technologically plausible.” In 2002, following the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty, President George W. Bush announced his administration’s intention to field an initial set of missile defense capabilities by 2004. By the end of that year, five long-range Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors were operational at Fort Greely, Alaska.

In 2010, the Pentagon’s ballistic missile defense review called for maintaining 30 interceptors in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It also called for deploying Standard Missile-3 IIB ground-based interceptors (GBIs) in Eastern Europe to supplement coverage for the U.S. homeland by 2020. The European missiles would arrive in the fourth and last phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA).

Unveiled by President Barack Obama in September 2009, the EPAA is Washington’s contribution to NATO Europe’s layered missile defense architecture. Phases I, II, and III are designed to protect NATO expeditionary forces and NATO Europe territory against intermediate-range threats. Phase I is designed to counter short-range missiles; phase II, medium-range; and phase III, intermediate-range.

But Hagel’s revised U.S. missile defense program cancels the Phase-IV missiles for Europe. Instead, it adds 14 GBIs in the U.S. to the current 30, bringing the 2017 total to 44 — all but four in Alaska. The extra missiles will come from re-allocating GBIs from the Missile Defense Agency’s spares and stockpile reliability program. The revision also adds another AN/TPY-2 radar in Japan for better early warning and tracking of North Korean missiles.

Why the changes? Among the reasons are technical challenges, budget limitations, and a perceived greater threat from North Korea. The homeland missile defense program is already encountering a number of developmental setbacks. The last three tests have failed — the latest in July. The last interceptor test prior to July was in 2008. Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring criticized the infrequent testing at the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee in July, stating that “we cannot wait another four and a half to five years to test again”. There was also speculation that Washington’s cancellation of phase IV was partly designed to acquiesce to Moscow’s concerns that the SM-3 IIB interceptors would degrade its strategic nuclear deterrent capability, although NATO has often said this would not occur nor was it the intention.

Indeed, Russia welcomed the shift. Still, technical and budgetary issues were the main driving factors. Congress had cut the budget for the development of the SM-3 IIB, whose technical feasibility was in doubt. Furthermore, its projected operational capability date of 2022 or later was viewed as too late. As Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld said in March, the Pentagon viewed North Korea’s program as “going a little faster than expected.”

A third missile interceptor site may be built on the East Coast of the U.S. In April, members of the House Armed Services Committee requested that the 2014 defense appropriations bill include funding for such a site. The Pentagon has already been required to complete an environmental study by 2016 for a site to base 20 interceptors.

Strategic complications ahead?

The withdrawal of phase IV’s SM-3 IIB interceptors in Europe may have eased Russia’s concerns in the short term, but may have set U.S. missile defense on a grander path — with concomitant consequences for Washington’s strategic relations with Russia and China.

Andrew Futter, a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester, notes that the revised program shifts away from deployments tailored to specific regional threats and toward a system that could target any type of missile threat regardless of origin. For example, the now-planned 44 interceptors are unlikely to undermine Russia’s strategic nuclear capability, but the increased deployments may be viewed with concern by China. Futter notes that if a future U.S. administration increased the capability to, say, “100 GBIs at 3 U.S. sites, more highly capable radar, larger number of assets deployed in Europe and northeast Asia,” the system could begin to “look like a serious problem for China and a major concern for Russia.”

The decreasing capability beyond the upper test limit with proven interceptors could become a major feature in Russia-US strategic nuclear force discussions — despite the abandonment of the 1972 ABM Treaty.

Divergent threat assessments

But how serious is the ballistic missile threat to the U.S. from powers outside Russia and China? Since the 1990s, intelligence assessments have provided an array of missile threat analysis — all variously criticized as either too sanguine or too alarming.

In 1995, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE 95-19) tasked with assessing potential new missile threats to the U.S. beyond China and Russia concluded that “no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada.” In 1998, a congressionally mandated study titled “Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States” — more prosaically known as the Rumsfeld Report — criticized NIE 95-19 for assuming countries would conduct an extensive safety and testing process before deployment, much like the U.S. and other established missile powers, rather than deploy early without much evaluation. It concluded that North Korea and Iran could deploy an ICBM by 2003, or within five years of making a decision to proceed. Partly in response to this critique, then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet published a new National Intelligence Estimate in 1999. Titled “Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015,” NIE-99-19 stated that within the next 15 years the U.S. will “most likely face ICBM threats from North Korea, probably from Iran, possibly from Iraq.”

In 2010, the Pentagon’s ballistic missile defense review concluded, “It is difficult to predict precisely how the threat to the U.S. homeland will evolve, but it is certain that it will do so.” Its bottom line: North Korea will, within the next decade, “be able to mate a nuclear warhead to a proven delivery system.” In December, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on Iran suggested that the U.S. intelligence community may have overestimated the Iranian program. The CRS report said that “it is increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015” due to lack of foreign support, technology acquisition, and flight testing.”

Uzi Rubin, former head of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, recently said Tehran is “doing some design on every kind of ballistic missile including ICBMs, but they have not advanced beyond that.” Rubin says he believes Iran has “mastered the basic technology and are in the position to develop a ballistic missile to any range. They have their human resources and physical infrastructure to do [so].”

Iran’s space program includes the liquid-fueled Safir rocket, which has placed satellites in orbit and provided a good research platform for ICBM propulsion technologies. The Sajjil, a two-stage 22-ton mobile solid-propellant missile, can probably reach Eastern Europe. Rubin says doubling the weight of Sajjil’s first stage could give it a range of 3,700 kilometers, enough to reach much of Western Europe.

North Korea, meanwhile, has demonstrated a nascent ICBM capability with Taepodong-2 ballistic missile tests and launches of space launch vehicles (SLVs). An operational ICBM may still be a few years away, but the foundations are there for missiles that could strike 6,000 kilometers and possibly more than 10,000 kilometers away.

Of particular concern is to what extent Iran and North Korea may be continuing to share missile technologies and know-how. Pyongyang’s missile testing may be a surrogate for Tehran’s program. Iranian and North Korean missiles have in the past displayed considerable similarity. For example, North Korea’s Nodong-1 and Iran’s Shahab-3 are based on the same system, and similar to that of Pakistan’s Ghauri-I.

European gradualism

While the foundations are set for greatly expanding the U.S. homeland BMD system, NATO Europe is pursuing a more gradual approach. At last year’s Chicago summit, NATO announced that Europe has an interim territorial BMD capability to protect southern Europe. It is expected that phase II will provide a territorial coverage in 2015 and phase III in 2018 as interceptors and supporting systems are deployed in Romania and Poland.

Soon after Hagel’s announced that the U.S. would drop phase IV of the EPAA, other U.S. officials quickly noted that Washington remains committed to European missile defense, and in particular phases I-III, which include the provision of Aegis missile defense vessels and U.S. early warning assets. Land-based interceptors against intermediate-range missiles will be deployed in Romania and Poland.

But the U.S. and European homeland BMD systems are taking divergent paths. Europe’s BMD program is principally focused on southern threats like Iran, and not longer-range threats like North Korea’s. At the Polish National Defence University in April, Frank Rose, the deputy assistant secretary of state at the department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said that phase III is designed to “protect all of NATO Europe against ballistic missile threats from the Middle East,” while Washington is seeking to protect the U.S. from a growing threat from North Korea and Iran. No mention was made of potential ICBM threats against NATO Europe.

North Korea appears to be developing ballistic missiles that can hit either the continental U.S. or Western Europe, but only the U.S. is developing a system to meet this threat. For example, a North Korean missile with a range to hit Seattle (7,900 kilometers) brings Stockholm, Berlin and Helsinki into range. One that can strike San Francisco at 8,600 kilometers pulls Paris, London and Athens into range. And 10,700 kilometers for Washington, D.C., covers parts of southern Europe (Lisbon, Madrid, and Rome). Although North Korean missiles may not have the accuracy to hit a specific city, these ranges show how North Korea’s intent to acquire long-range missiles threatens U.S. and Western European territory.

Still, some European leaders have voiced the importance of factoring Pyongyang’s program into their strategic planning. In April, British Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted North Korea’s long-range missile developments as one reason for the U.K. to maintain its independent nuclear deterrent.

Arguably, the U.S., for geographic reasons, has more long-range threats driving its BMD (Iran and North Korea) than NATO Europe (potentially just North Korea) given that Iran’s proximity falls into the intermediate range area for the Europeans. Washington therefore has greater impetus for building limited defenses against ICBMs.

There are questions on other key architectural aspects of Europe’s system — for example, whether the one AN/TPY-2 radar in Turkey and the limited range of SPY-1 have sufficient capability to track missiles. Bernd Kreienbaum, a defense analyst at German technology think tank IABG, says the EPAA has “insufficient sensor and shooter robustness against the whole spectrum that can for example be over shot by lofting missiles. So the architecture must be amended.”

Furthermore, NATO Europe will need to address with Moscow the potential for interceptors to bring down debris onto Russian territory. IABG calculates that more than half of the intercepts would take place over Russia, creating major political hurdles to navigate as part of command-and-control procedures for NATO to engage incoming missiles.

The radar and interceptor challenge could be best dealt with by bringing Russia further into NATO Europe’s missile defense architecture through the NATO-Russia Council to combine research and BMD assets. The council agreed to discuss missile defense cooperation at the 2010 NATO Lisbon Summit, although progress has been slow.

Robust intent and capability assessments of countries like Iran and North Korea may be challenging, but what is clear is that a combination of SLVs and missile programs is helping such nations to make great strides. Furthermore, additional countries could join the probable threat list as technology and know-how proliferate, or upcoming missile powers undergo major political upheaval centering their governments against Western interests. The lead time to develop robust long-range missile interceptors requires a wider view to the potential threats occurring in the 2010s and through into the 2020s.

Ben Sheppard is a professorial lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and a senior associate at the Institute for Alternative Futures. He is also an adjunct fellow of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.