Secret US Department of Defense studies cast doubt on whether a multibillion-dollar missile defense system planned for Europe will ever be able to protect the US from Iranian missiles as intended, congressional investigators say.
Military officials say they believe the problems can be overcome and are moving forward with plans. However, proposed fixes could be difficult. One possibility has already been ruled out as technically unfeasible. Another, relocating missile interceptors planned for Poland and possibly Romania to ships on the North Sea, could be diplomatically explosive.
The studies are the latest to highlight serious problems for a plan that has been criticized on several fronts. Republicans claim it was hastily drawn up in an attempt to appease Russia, which had opposed an earlier system. However, Russia is also critical of the plan, which it believes is really intended to counter its missiles. A series of governmental and scientific reports has cast doubt on whether it would ever work as planned.
At a time that the military faces giant budget cuts, the studies could prompt the US Congress to reconsider whether it is worthwhile to spend billions for a system that may not fulfill its original goals.
The classified studies were summarized in a briefing for lawmakers by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), congress’ nonpartisan investigative and auditing arm, which is preparing a report. The GAO briefing, which was not classified, was obtained by The Associated Press.
Military officials declined repeated requests to discuss the studies on the record, saying they were classified. Even speaking on condition of anonymity, they declined to say whether the GAO had accurately reported its conclusions. However, the GAO briefing had been reviewed by several defense department officials and the revisions they requested were incorporated. There was no indication they had objected to how the studies had been described.
The officials who spoke to the AP emphasized that the interceptor intended to protect the US is in the early stages of development and its capabilities are not known. They said that the US is already protected by other missile defense systems. Even if European-based interceptors are unable to directly defend the US, they say they would protect not only European allies and US troops stationed on the continent, but also US radars there that are necessary for all US missile defense plans.
Missile defense has been a contentious issue since former US president George W. Bush sought to base long-range interceptors in central Europe to stop missiles from Iran. Some Democrats criticized the plans, saying they were rushed and based on unproven technology. Russia believed the program was aimed at countering its missiles and undermining its nuclear deterrent.
While it might seem logical for the US to want to have a defense against Russian missiles, it is not so simple. A new missile defense system aimed at Russia could undermine the balance between the nuclear powers, prompting Moscow to add to its arsenal and build up its own defenses. It would undermine prospects for further cuts in nuclear weapons — a priority for US President Barack Obama — and could also hurt US-Russian cooperation on other issues of international importance.
Obama reworked the plans soon after taking office in 2009, arguing that the threat from long-range Iranian missiles was years off. His plans called for slower interceptors that could address Iran’s medium-range missiles. The interceptors would be upgraded gradually over four phases, culminating early next decade with those intended to protect both Europe and the US.
The plans have gained momentum in Europe with the signing of basing agreements in Poland, Romania and Turkey, as well as backing by NATO. Russia initially welcomed the plan, but now strongly opposes it, especially the interceptors in the final stage. Moscow fears those interceptors could catch its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) launched at the US.
It is that fourth stage that is now at issue. The GAO investigators said that the classified reports by the Missile Defense Agency concluded that Romania was a poor location for an interceptor to protect the US. It said the Polish site would work only if the US developed capabilities to launch interceptors while an Iranian missile was in its short initial phase of powered flight. However, the administration is not pursuing that capability because it does not believe it is feasible, one senior defense official said.
The military has considered deploying interceptors on ships, but the US Navy has safety concerns that have not yet been resolved. The suggestion of attempting intercepts from ships on the North Sea would likely aggravate tensions with Russia. That could put it right in the path that some Russian ICBMs would use, further reinforcing Russia’s belief that it, not Iran, is the target of the system.