Missile defence for Europe faces challenges
29 May 2007, Washington (dpa) - The United States is forging ahead on fielding a long-range missile defence system in Eastern Europe despite concerns that the shield still faces considerable technological hurdles and has not been tested under realistic scenarios. The controversial plan to deploy 10 interceptor missiles to Poland and a radar site to the Czech Republic has been greeted with unease in Europe and outright hostility in Russia, becoming the focus of recent headlines and a likely topic at the G-8
29 May 2007
Washington (dpa) - The United States is forging ahead on fielding a long-range missile defence system in Eastern Europe despite concerns that the shield still faces considerable technological hurdles and has not been tested under realistic scenarios.
The controversial plan to deploy 10 interceptor missiles to Poland and a radar site to the Czech Republic has been greeted with unease in Europe and outright hostility in Russia, becoming the focus of recent headlines and a likely topic at the G-8 summit June 6-8 in Germany.
The diplomatic tension that has arisen since Poland and the Czech Republic began discussions with Washington has overshadowed more practical questions about the feasibility and cost of the system, designed to shoot down long-range missiles from North Korea or Iran in the middle of their flight in space.
US President George W Bush's ambitious missile defence agenda breezed through Congress with an annual price tag of about 9 billion dollars during his six years in office. The programme now faces tougher scrutiny from Democrats, who took control of Congress in January and have raised questions about whether the system was being rushed without effective oversight and at too high a cost.
The House of Representatives voted May 17 to slash about half of the Pentagon's funding request for stationing long-range missile defences in Europe, citing the need to spend money on more promising missile defence technologies geared toward fending off short- and medium-range threats.
"We do so by redirecting funding from investments in less mature, high-risk missile defence efforts" like the one proposed for Eastern Europe, said Representative Ellen Tauscher, chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.
The Pentagon's Missile Defence Agency hopes to have the 10 long- range interceptors in Poland by 2013 at a cost of 4 billion dollars. The design for the interceptors will be based on the three-boost interceptors already in Alaska and California. The Missile Defence Agency wants to remove one of the motors to build two-boost stage rockets needed to meet the geographic and altitude requirements for countering an Iranian threat.
The Missile Defence Agency (MDA), along with contractor Boeing, is studying the design for the two-boost phase conversion, which should be completed in June, but no timeframe has been set to begin testing the adapted missiles, agency spokesman Richard Lehner said.
Even though testing hasn't begun, the MDA is confident the interceptors will be ready in time, because removing a motor and modifying the software for a shorter, two-boost phase flight is not overly complicated, Lehner said.
"The boosters are the same," he said. "Just deduct one stage."
The Missile Defence Agency installed nine interceptors in 2004 in Alaska and two more in California as part of the Ground Based Midcourse (GMD) system for taking out long-range ballistic missiles fired from North Korea. The GMD system with the adapted interceptors is the same as planned for Eastern Europe, but critics note it has had only one successful test in five years. The Missile Defence Agency scrubbed a May 25 test because of problems with the target missile.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm, said in a March report that Ground Based Midcourse is still largely unproven despite scoring a successful hit in a September 2006 test.
"There is still a ways to go to demonstrate whether the capability is reliable enough," Paul Francis, primary author of the GAO report, said in an interview.
The GAO and missile defence critics, including Philip Coyle, who headed the Pentagon's independent weapons testing office during the 1990s, say testing has not been realistic.
The target missile in September's test did not release countermeasures like balloons or chaff, which are used to confuse the missile defence system's tracking radar, Coyle said.
"They have done these tests under scripted conditions, where you have information in advance that no enemy would give you," said Coyle, now an analyst with the Centre for Defence Information in Washington.
The Pentagon and US diplomats, citing intelligence estimates that Iran will have a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe or perhaps even the United States by 2015, argue that the system can be deployed in time to meet that threat and upgraded as the technology improves.
"It isn't so much of a rush as it is a movement in a deliberate way to get this programme on track, so there is something fielded by the time we estimate the Iranians might have this kind of capability," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said. "We develop it as we're moving."
In 2002, then-defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld put US missile defence on a fast track by exempting it from the bureaucracy that governs major weapons programmes, giving the Missile Defence Agency unusual autonomy to develop the various components.
"This has enabled MDA to be agile in decision making and to field an initial (ballistic-missile defence system) capability quickly," the GAO said. "On the other hand, MDA operates with considerable autonomy to change goals and plans, making it difficult to reconcile outcomes with original expectations."
The Democratic legislation calls on the Pentagon to return missile defence to the same "rigorous, robust testing that other systems have to have before they are deployed," Tauscher said.
The Democrats want to increase spending to address short- and medium-range missile threats posed by North Korea and Iran, Tauscher said.
These missile defence systems include the sea-based Aegis system, Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) and the Patriot (PAC-3). All three have shown more sophistication in testing than the long- range, Ground Based Midcourse planned for the European deployment. In April, Aegis completed its 27th successful hit-to-kill test since 2001.
The Defence Authorization Bill cut 160 million dollars from the Pentagon's 310-million-dollar request to begin preparing the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, but the Missile Defence Agency and some Republicans hope the money will be restored in the final appropriations bill in the coming weeks.
The Democrats agreed to a Republican demand in the bill that allows the Pentagon to ask for the money to be replenished once NATO formally endorses long-range missile defence in Eastern Europe and negotiations with Warsaw and Prague have been successfully wrapped up.
Republicans contend the money should be restored because there must be long-term planning for the possibility that Iran or North Korea could surprise US and NATO defences and intelligence estimates, and that Congress should be on the safe side.
"There's no harm done," Representative Trent Franks said. "How irreparable is our harm and how inexpressible is our danger if we should err in supposing that an attack will not come?"
Subject: German news