I have a column up at Foreign Policy (“Billion Dollar Baby”) on the announcement by newly installed SECDEF Chuck Hagel that 14 additional ground-based interceptors ought to do it with regard to North Korea. I noted in the piece that the focus on North Korea led to a comparative neglect of the decision to cancel Phase 4 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach intended to provide an early shot at an Iranian ICBM. (Not everyone ignored it, of course, but most of the major daily papers did.)
After I submitted my column, the Washington Post wrote a strange (even by its standards) op-ed lamenting the loss of Phase 4, explaining:
In doing so, the administration has eliminated the possibility of a defensive system that would give the United States two shots at an Iranian ICBM — what in Pentagon jargon is called a shoot-look-shoot capacity. [sic]
Actually, no. This is pretty much all wrong.
Let’s just observe that, as a factual matter, the earth is round. As a consequence, the interceptors based in Alaska (near the north pole) do have a chance (in hell) of intercepting an Iranian missile. The current doctrine is to salvo-fire five interceptors at each target. That is five shots, not two. The reference to shoot-look-shoot, which seems like plain English to me, refers to the ability to shoot at the incoming missile, then look to see whether the first shot killed the missile before expending a shot again. Shoot. Look. Shoot (if necessary). The improvement in efficiency is obvious, but what that takes is time — sweet, precious time.
(I should also mention the two slightly different definitions of shoot-look-shoot. In the second version, you fire additional interceptors if the first shot gets close enough and sees more than one credible target. We don’t configure the kill vehicles that way, but we could.)
First, Phase IV of the EPAA might not have provided a shoot-look-shoot capability. The report of the National Academies is a little coy about this, because I think the situation is pretty borderline and delves into the classified realm. The basic problem is the Alaska is far enough away on a curving earth that the window to shoot at incoming Iranian ICBM is pretty narrow — probably right around the apogee.
I would encourage the collective you to make some formal models, but I suspect the answer will depend very much on the assumptions in the model — assumptions that are hard to make given the fact that neither the SM-3 IIB nor the notional Iranian ICBM yet exist. The uncertainty is probably enough, however, to discourage heavy investment in Phase 4 for the purpose of gaining a shoot-look-shoot capability, especially given the alternatives. (Choices are always about the alternatives.)
I make the apogee something like 6,000-7,000 km from the Fort Greely site. (I note the test range maxes out at 8,000 km, which I suspect probably bounds the worst-case Iranian engagement for it.) That’s a long, long way for an interceptor to travel, which means that the interceptor is looking at well in excess of 10 minutes of flight time, maybe even in excess of 15 minutes. If the engagement window from Alaska is around 1,800 secs into the flight, then the interceptor might need to be launched as early as 800 seconds after the Iranian launch. One might be able to fit in a full engagement cycle in the first 800 seconds, but I think it’s pretty close.
The tight kinematics mean that it would not be responsible to rely on Phase 4 of the EPAA for a shoot-look-shoot capability if there are better options.
Then there are the other criticisms leveled by the National Academies:
(1) Phase 4 is not necessary for European defense (and therefore need not be “in” Europe), (2) that the rationale of an “early” intercept as a solution to the midcourse discrimination problem is an illusion, (3) that Iran might overfly the site in Poland, (4) that the National Academies concluded the interceptor likely couldn’t achieve 5 km/s in the VLS launcher volume, and (5) that an East Coast site with a new interceptor, new radars and new concept of operations would be much, much better.
The editors at the Washington Post simply skip over all this, as well as the fact that the Administration is starting the EIS process for an East Coast site (under Congressional duress). As I have noted before, an East Coast site is a terrible idea unless it is a packaged with the other changes recommended by the National Academies. If the editors of the Washington Post took ten minutes to think through this, they might have written an op-ed usefully advocating for the broader set of recommendations in the National Academies report.
Instead, I get the feeling that they wrote the editorial as a sop to certain Republican politicians. ”See, we can be critical of the Administration!” One of my complaints about editorials in general, but also bipartisanship, is that we tend to compromise on outcomes in ways that have no inherent strategic logic. So, for example, if the President says he will end nuclear testing and some opponent calls for seven tests next year, the Post might write in favor 3 1/2 nuclear tests — a nonsense solution that achieves nothing other than standing in the middle.
Rather than compromising on outcomes, what we ought to do is try to make policies that address the concerns expressed by the other side of the argument. I realize that can hard to do when much of official Republican foreign policy boils down to “I hate the President and his works,” but there are certainly conservatives who speak in complete sentences and chew with mouths closed. (Even if they eat babies. Kidding!)
What the Post might have done is observe that conservatives are not wrong to assert that we have a real (if still emerging) challenge from North Korean and Iranian missiles. In that context, one might certainly explore the best architecture to meet that challenge, without breaking the bank. I still think back to a conversation I had when I was a young RA at CSIS, with someone who would not mind one bit being described as a “neoconservative Star Wars fanatic.”
He told me he was opposed to space-based defenses. I was stunned.
“It’s simple. I want missile defense to work.”
Liked him ever since.