If you went strictly by the mainstream media reporting on the Defense Department’s recent announcement about missile defense, the thought in your head would be “we’re deploying more interceptor missiles because of North Korea.”
What’s probably not in your head is the auxiliary details. DOD has requested that funding for the additional deployments begin in fiscal year 2014. The actual deployments won’t start until after that. Assuming DOD gets the funding, it will take until 2017 for the interceptors to be in place. And the deployment, if it happens, will do no more than provide the ground-based interceptor baseline that was originally planned by the Bush II administration (44 interceptors), a baseline the Obama administration cut back to its current level (30 interceptors) in April 2009.
To put the last point another way: if the Obama DOD hadn’t cancelled the remaining ground-based interceptor (GBI) deployments in 2009, the 14 additional interceptors would already be deployed.
That said, the utility of deploying the additional GBIs – which would raise the deployed total from 30 to 44 – can justifiably be questioned, if former Secretary Bob Gates was right in 2009, when he said the 30 GBIs in Alaska and California were enough:
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told senators that 30 ground-based interceptors “provide a strong defense” against “the level of [missile] capability that North Korea has now and is likely to have for some years to come.” The system is designed to defend the United States against intermediate- and long-range missiles in the middle range of flight.
The North Korean satellite launch in December 2012 didn’t change the profile of the North Korean threat; it merely validated the predicted type of threat against which the GBIs were originally deployed. Frankly, the 30 GBIs we already have in their silos probably are enough.
They are if the threat we’re worried about is North Korea, at any rate. What if it’s not? Suppose the threat we’re really concerned about is China? It’s an interesting point, given the lack of precision or clearly-stated strategic purpose behind, basically, any move the Obama administration makes on missile defense.
Cancelling the Atlantic-side Missile defense
Consider the decision announced by DOD at the same time as the GBI augmentation: that the U.S. will cancel the fourth and final phase of Obama’s missile defense plan for Europe. The European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) is the new plan Obama ordered up in 2009 when he cancelled George W. Bush’s plan to deploy GBIs to Europe.
GBIs in Poland would have provided missile defense for North America as well as for Europe against threats coming westward from Asia. In Bush’s original plan, the GBIs would have started going into Poland in 2013. (The GBIs in Alaska and California defend North America against threats coming eastward from Asia, or – to some extent – against missiles from East Asia coming over the North Pole).
Obama’s replacement plan for the cancelled Bush deployments was to develop a new, ground-based mobile interceptor out of the Navy’s shorter-range SM-3 missile, and eventually to deploy a follow-on interceptor, called the SM-3 IIB, which would have “some capability” against ICBMs. The projected time frame for this deployment was to be 2020-22, some 7-9 years after the GBI deployment in Poland was to have begun.
A key weakness of this approach, however, has been that, for the purposes of defending North America, the geometry isn’t workable for using a new-generation SM-3 interceptor in Europe against an intercontinental ballistic missile from South Asia or the Middle East. In September 2012, the National Research Council published an assessment of the prospects for defending North America using the EPAA deployment concept, and concluded that the prospects aren’t good. Obtaining the NRC report costs $62, but fortunately, Defense Industry Daily has summarized its findings as follows (scroll down at the link):
[The NRC assessment] states that EPAA Phase IV is not likely to be an effective way to defend the United States, and recommends that the USA make changes to its own GMD system and radar set. They’re not advocating the dismantling of EPAA, just saying that the USA should have a system in which EPAA is about Europe’s defense, and the USA has a system that doesn’t depend on it.
More on that in a moment.