The Obama Administration has replaced the ground-based missile defense architecture in Europe with a series of theater missile defenses centered on the Aegis system.
I think this makes a lot of sense, as regular readers know, on both technical and political grounds. SECDEF Bob Gates and General Cartwright, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, gave a detailed briefing on the technical rationale for the shift to theater defenses:
Since , two important developments have prompted a reassessment of our approach in Europe. First, a change in our intelligence community’s 2006 view of the Iranian threat: The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab-3, is developing more rapidly than previously projected. This poses an increased and more immediate threat to our forces on the European continent, as well as to our allies.
On the other hand, our intelligence assessment also now assesses that the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006.
The second development relates to our technology. Over the last few years, we have made great strides with missile defense, particularly in our ability to counter short-and-medium-range missiles. We now have proven capabilities to intercept these ballistic missiles with land-and-sea-based interceptors supported by much-improved sensors.
These capabilities offer a variety of options to detect, track and shoot down enemy missiles. This allows us to deploy a distributive sensor network rather than a single fixed site, like the kind slated for the Czech Republic, enabling greater survivability and adaptability.
We have also improved the Standard Missile 3, the SM-3, which has had eight successful flight tests since 2007. These tests have amply demonstrated the SM-3’s capability and have given us greater confidence in the system and its future.
Based on these two factors, we have now the opportunity to deploy new sensors and interceptors, in northern and southern Europe, that near-term can provide missile defense coverage against more immediate threats from Iran or others.
In the initial stage, we will deploy Aegis ships equipped with SM-3 interceptors, which provide the flexibility to move interceptors from one region to another if needed.
The second phase, about 2015, will involve fielding upgraded, land-based SM-3s. Consultations have begun with allies, starting with Poland and the Czech Republic, about hosting a land-based version of the SM-3 and other components of the system. Basing some interceptors on land will provide additional coverage and save costs compared to a purely sea-based approach.
A lot of “smart” people around town will adopt casual cynicism of saying this decision is really about Russia. Don’t believe them.
Gates described the decision as “driven … almost exclusively by the changed intelligence assessment and the enhanced technology.”
Those who would say the decision was about Russia have it backwards — for exhibits A and B check the quotes in stories by WaPo’s Michael D. Shear and Ann Scott Tyson and the NYT’s Peter Baker and Nicholas Kulish.
The Bush Administration placed a midcourse interceptor site and X-band radar within the former Warsaw Pact precisely to make a political point to the Russia, not because it provided the best defense. Aegis was always a better technical option.
Once the White House was no longer motivated to be churlish toward Moscow, that allowed technical considerations at the front of the debate. The fact that this may also open up a world of possibilities with Moscow (and I stress may) is nice, but is not the reason to put theater missile defenses into Europe. The reason is to give NATO allies a defense that works against a threat that exists.
What the Obama team has done is to take Russia out of the equation, not to put it in.
As regular readers know, I’ve long thought the Aegis-based architecture represented a much better solution to defending NATO allies against Iranian ballistic missiles. (See: How Many Aegis Ships To Defend NATO? June 12, 2007 and 4 Aegis Ships to Defend NATO July 16, 2008 ).
Aegis is “probably the one well-run missile defense program” in the US arsenal. Nice to see I am not alone.
Guess How Many Ships?
One little detail — the new architecture includes 2 or 3 Aegis ships in theater. Here is what Gates said:
But on a day-in, day-out basis, we’re looking probably for what we would call a 2.0 presence, maybe a 3.0 presence, so three ships at any given time in and around the Mediterranean and the North Sea, et cetera, to protect areas of interest, and then we would surge additional ships. And part of what’s in the budget is to get us a sufficient number of ships to allow us to have a global deployment of this capability on a constant basis, with a surge capacity to any one theater at a time.
Some of you may recall that General Obering tried to claim that 40 ships would be required, as a way of making more attractive the interceptor in Poland. I found that, um, hard to believe:
[MDA Director General Trey] Obering was obviously aware of the proposal, because his prepared statement included a long dismissal of the mobile systems that asserted the Navy would need 40 Aegis ships to defend Europe:
When I read this, I thought 40?
As in FOUR ZERO? Is this like the biblical 40? As in “We don’t know how many, because we only have eyes for ground-based midcourse”?
The Aegis defended area or footprint is supposed to be much, much bigger than Obering’s remarks would suggest.
I suggested that 4 was a more reasonable number than 40.
Now, here we are with a planned architecture of 2-3 ships (and some supplemental coverage). No wonder some people found Obering to be less than forthright. And, nice to see that those burnout velocity estimates weren’t so far off.