Our early-warning satellites are in a precarious state. We have three Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites that provide global coverage, but if one of them fails, our global missile defense system will be in serious danger.
Additionally, our early-warning AWACS upgrade program is underfunded, and even if it were funded, the program only covers the electronics. No money is available to give the aircraft the new engines they need to operate at the higher altitudes where they would be most effective. Although there is some talk of developing new drones that could support the Missile Defense system, to date no concrete action has been taken.
So far, the Obama Plan simply continues some of the Missile Defense programs of the Clinton and Bush eras, while cancelling or cutting to the bone some of the most promising developments such as the Airborne Laser and the Multiple Kill Vehicle, a small relatively low-cost interceptor that showed great promise and could have been mounted on any number of platforms. Nothing in the Obama Plan is new, or provides more or better defenses that what was planned by the Bush administration. Instead, the US has, to say the least, humiliated its friends and heartened its enemies.
The announcement on September 17th that the Obama administration is going to scrap the plan to install ten modified Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) ABM missiles in Poland and the large X Band Radar in the Czech Republic and replace it with a phased deployment of the Navy’s SM-3 system has raised serious questions about US reliability. The damage to US prestige is immense.
The only comparable event in post-1945 US history was Jimmy Carter’s decision to scrap the Neutron bomb, which effectively gave the Soviets a veto over the weapons that NATO could or could not deploy. It took a huge and costly political struggle over the so-called Euromissiles, the Pershing II and the Ground Based Cruise Missiles (GBI) to reestablish the right of the US and its allies to determine their own military destiny.
Now, by caving in to Russian pressure that principal has been shattered. It will take years - - and probably the deployment of a hugely expensive system that Russia does not like -- to regain what has just been lost. The minimal system that was to be deployed in Europe was to a large extent, not a “Bush” system as is often claimed, but was derived from the Clinton era National Missile Defense program that Bush inherited and which was deployed in small numbers in Alaska and California.
The deployment in Europe was designed to cover parts of Western Europe and the United States from Iranian Intermediate Range and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. It would have given some protection against the long range missiles that Iran is developing along with North Korea. According to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates it would have had the ability to shoot down five of these type of missiles. As far as his claim that the system would not have been ready until 2017. The Bush Administration was able to deploy three stage GBI’s in Alaska in less than five years, so there is no reason why two-stage GBIs could not be deployed in the far more benign environment of southern Poland in a comparable time frame.
The large radar, planned to be placed in the mountains of the Czech Republic, would have been far, far more capable than the AN-TPY 2 sensor that the Administration now plans to deploy in one or more as yet undetermined locations. Some believe that it was this radar, more than the GBI missiles, which upset the Russians. After all since the time of their czars, they have worked hard to prevent foreigners from getting an accurate idea of what is really going on inside their borders. The large radar would have given the US and its allies real-time data on activities in their airspace at least as far away as Moscow.
The AN-TPY 2 sensor was developed as part of the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD), program which has been in development for more than a decade and will gain its Initial Operational Capacity sometime next year. The THAAD is an excellent system for shooting down Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs). But it has yet to prove itself against intermediate range missiles and has no capability whatsoever against Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. If the US were willing to invest a very large sum, however, it might eventually be given some capacity against these targets, and against submarine-launched missiles in their terminal phase. The radar is in no way a substitute for the large one that has been abandoned.
In his New York Times article, Gates refers to “the airborne, space-and-ground based sensors we now plan to use.” Yet the only sensor mentioned by the White House is the AN-TPY 2. It will be interesting to find out what airborne and space based sensors he is referring to. There are a few old intelligence-gathering aircraft such as the RC-135 Cobra Ball, based on the old Boeing 707 airframe. These cannot provide the kind of permanent, on-station surveillance needed to support an effective missile defense system. The AWACS early-warning radar system used by the Saudis are not under US control, except with their permission, so the flow of data from those planes could therefore be interrupted at a royal whim. And as mentioned, the US AWACS upgrade program is underfunded, and even if the funds were available, they would not be allocated to cover the new engines needed to operate at high altitude where the radar would be most effective.
The White House press release also makes no mention of any new space based sensors. These are by far the most critical and problematic parts of America’s overall missile defense system. Since the early 1970s, the Defense Support Program early-warning satellites have been watching for any signs of hostile missile launch. Equipped with fantastically sensitive Infra-red sensors, they stare down at our planet from 22,300 miles up, in what is called Geosynchronous orbit. (GEO) The system was first used during the 1991 Gulf war, when the DSPs provided early warning of the Scud launches aimed at Israel and at Saudi Arabia. Since then, newer satellites have joined the constellation. The latest and most advanced of all, the DSP -23 failed last year in still unexplained circumstances.
In the 1990s the Air Force put together an exceptionally ambitious program to replace these satellites: The Space-Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS) which was supposed to consist of three elements: SBIRS High was a direct replacement for the DSPs in GEO; a separate sensor was designed to ride along as a passenger on a secret intelligence-gathering satellite in a Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO), and finally the SBIRS Low system would have been a constellation of as many as twenty satellites in Low Earth Orbit, 200-400 miles above the Earth. As of now, the program is more than ten years late and almost 200% over budget.
Fortunately two of the HEO sensors are now operational, and the Air Force expects the first of the SBIRS GEO satellites to be launched sometime in late 2010. Sadly, the SBIRS Low part of the program was canceled in 1999. A far less ambitious program called the Space Tracking and Surveillance System was developed in it place. The first of these satellites may also be launched next year. Smaller ones, developed under the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program, may have some utility when networked into the Missile Defense sensor system, but they are designed to support the troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, so obviously their priorities would be different from those devoted to missile defense.
The question of sensors is important, but the best tracking system in the world is useless unless it is able to guide weapons that can shoot down incoming missiles. The story is told that in the mid 1970s Ronald Reagan visited the North American Air Defense headquarters in Colorado, saw just how good the DSPs were and asked the Commanding General, “If we can track then so well, why can’t we shoot them down?” - - the same question he asked the nation in March 1983 in his famous “Star Wars” speech.
The Obama Plan relies on the SM-3 in its various iterations to kill enemy missiles. These are already deployed by both the US Navy and the Japanese Navy against the North Korean MRBMs and IRBMs. If the administration wanted to, it could reinforce the coverage of Europe next week by simply sending another SM-3-equipped destroyer through the Panama Canal. Why wait till 2011 ? In fact nowhere is it mentioned that the Navy will be given extra cash to buy more ships.
The Navy and the Missile Defense Agency has long had a program aimed at improving the SM-3’s capability - upgrades to which all major weapons systems are subjected. The claim by the White House that a new version of the SM-3 IIB missile will be ready in 2015 is slightly misleading, as that is a bit later than the Navy and the Missile Defense Agency had planned. The SM-3 IIA and the SM-3 IIB Navy Intercept Missiles, including a land based version planned for 2018 and 2020, will be nice to have. It will be interesting to see who in Europe will agree to accept the new system after what happen to the Czechs and Poles. Also the Iranians are not likely to adapt their missile development schedule to match Obama’s.
The White House press release says that “ the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capability has been slower to develop than previously estimated.” Have they been listening to the same analysts who told us that the Iranians were not developing nuclear weapons? Did they miss the fact that in February of this year, the Iranians successfully launched a satellite? The spacecraft was certainly primitive, but the fact that it got into orbit shows that they have mastered the essential technology needed to build an ICBM. Their ability to switch -- at something close to a moments notice -- from building MRBMs to IRBMs and ICBMs is not to be underestimated. Bob Gates seems more aware of this than does the White House, and subtly distanced himself from this assessment by quoting the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Cartwright USMC: “We would be surprised if the assessments did not change because ‘the enemy gets a vote.’”
It will be a hard and expensive process to recover the credibility and trust that has just been thrown away. It will take a whole new kind of strategic thinking that goes well beyond anything the George W. Bush administration ever imagined. At the very least, a Post-Obama US policy will have to involve placing hundreds of small missile interceptors in orbit. The moderate, barely adequate missile defense policy of the Bush administration will have to be replaced with a far more robust program to provide a comprehensive, multi layered missile defense system that will be a far greater step towards rendering nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete’ than anything recently envisaged.