Global Risk

Q&A Session on Recent Developments in U.S. and NATO Missile Defense

03.09.13 | 16 min read | Text by Charles P. Blair, Dr. Yousaf Butt, and Dr. George N. Lewis

Researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) asked two physicists who are experts in missile defense issues, Dr. Yousaf Butt and Dr. George Lewis, to weigh in on the announcement on March 15, 2013 regarding missile defense by the Obama administration.

Before exploring their reactions and insights, it is useful to identify salient elements of U.S. missile defense and place the issue in context. There are two main strategic missile defense systems fielded by the United States: one is based on large high-speed interceptors called Ground-Based Interceptors or “GBI’s” located in Alaska and California and the other is the mostly ship-based NATO/European system. The latter, European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to missile defense is designed to deal with the threat posed by possible future Iranian intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles to U.S. assets, personnel, and allies in Europe – and eventually attempt to protect the U.S. homeland.

The EPAA uses ground-based and mobile ship-borne radars; the interceptors themselves are mounted on Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers. Two land-based interceptor sites in Poland and Romania are also envisioned – the so-called “Aegis-ashore” sites. The United States and NATO have stated that the EPAA is not directed at Russia and poses no threat to its nuclear deterrent forces, but as outlined in a 2011 study by Dr. Theodore Postol and Dr. Yousaf Butt, this is not completely accurate because the system is ship-based, and thus mobile it could be reconfigured to have a theoretical capability to engage Russian warheads.

Indeed, General James Cartwright has explicitly mentioned this possible reconfiguration – or global surge capability – as an attribute of the planned system: “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.”

In the 2011 study, the authors focused on what would be the main concern of cautious Russian military planners —the capability of the missile defense interceptors to simply reach, or “engage,” Russian strategic warheads—rather than whether any particular engagement results in an actual interception, or “kill.” Interceptors with a kinematic capability to simply reach Russian ICBM warheads would be sufficient to raise concerns in Russian national security circles – regardless of the possibility that Russian decoys and other countermeasures might defeat the system in actual engagements. In short, even a missile defense system that could be rendered ineffective could still elicit serious concern from cautious Russian planners. The last two phases of the EPAA – when the higher burnout velocity “Block II” SM-3 interceptors come on-line in 2018 – could raise legitimate concerns for Russian military analysts.

Russian news report sums up the Russian concerns: “[Russian foreign minister] Lavrov said Russia’s agreement to discuss cooperation on missile defense in the NATO Russia Council does not mean that Moscow agrees to the NATO projects which are being developed without Russia’s participation. The minister said the fulfillment of the third and fourth phases of the U.S. ‘adaptive approach’ will enter a strategic level threatening the efficiency of Russia’s nuclear containment forces.” [emphasis added]

With this background in mind, FAS’ Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threat, Charles P. Blair (CB), asked Dr. Yousaf Butt (YB) and Dr. George Lewis (GL) for their input on recent developments on missile defense with eight questions.


Q: (CB)On March 15, Secretary of Defense Hagel announced that the U.S. will cancel the last Phase – Phase 4 – of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to missile defense which was to happen around 2021. This was the phase with the faster SM-3 “Block IIB” interceptors. Will this cancellation hurt the United State’s ability to protect itself and Europe?

A: (YB) No, because the “ability” you mention was always hypothetical. The Achilles’ Heel of all versions of the SM-3 (Block I A/B and Block II A/B) interceptors — indeed of “midcourse” missile defense, in general, is that it is straightforward to defeat the system using cheap decoy warheads. The system simply does not have a robust ability to discriminate a genuine warhead from decoys and other countermeasures. Because the intercepts take place in the vacuum of space, the heavy warhead and light decoys travel together, confusing the system’s sensors. The Pentagon’s own scientists at the Defense Science Board said as much in 2011, as did the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year.

Additionally, the system has never been successfully tested in realistic conditions stressed by the presence of decoys or other countermeasures. The majority of the system would be ship-based and is not known to work beyond a certain sea-state: as you might imagine, it becomes too risky to launch the interceptors if the ship is pitching wildly.

So any hypothetical (possibly future) nuclear-armed Middle Eastern nation with ICBMs could be a threat to the Unites States or Europe whether we have no missile defenses, have just Block I interceptors, or even the Block II interceptors. Since the interceptors would only have offered a false sense of security, nothing is lost in canceling Phase 4 of the EPAA. In fact, the other phases could also be canceled with no loss to U.S. or NATO security, and offering considerable saving of U.S. taxpayer’s money.

Q: (CB) What about Iran and its alleged desire to build ICBMs? Having just launched a satellite in January, could such actions act as a cover for an ICBM?

A: (YB) The evidence does not point that way at all. It points the other way. For instance, the latest Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on Iran’s missile program observes: (emphasis added)

Iran also has a genuine and ambitious space launch program, which seeks to enhance Iran’s national pride, and perhaps more importantly, its international reputation as a growing advanced industrial power. Iran also sees itself as a potential leader in the Middle East offering space launch and satellite services. Iran has stated it plans to use future launchers for placing intelligence gathering satellites into orbit, although such a capability is a decade or so in the future. Many believe Iran’s space launch program could mask the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – with ranges in excess of 5,500 km that could threaten targets throughout Europe, and even the United States if Iran achieved an ICBM capability of at least 10,000 km. ICBMs share many similar technologies and processes inherent in a space launch program, but it seems clear that Iran has a dedicated space launch effort and it is not simply a cover for ICBM development. Since 1999, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has assessed that Iran could test an ICBM by 2015 with sufficient foreign assistance, especially from a country such as China or Russia (whose support has reportedly diminished over the past decade). It is increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015 for several reasons: Iran does not appear to be receiving the degree of foreign support many believe would be necessary, Iran has found it increasingly difficult to acquire certain critical components and materials because of sanctions, and Iran has not demonstrated the kind of flight test program many view as necessary to produce an ICBM.”

Furthermore, the payload of Iran’s space launch vehicles is very low compared to what would be needed for a nuclear warhead — or even a substantial conventional warhead. For instance, Omid, Iran’s first satellite weighed just 27 kg [60 pounds] and Rasad-1, Iran’s second satellite weighed just 15.3 kilograms [33.74 pound], whereas a nuclear warhead would require a payload capacity on the order of 1000 kilograms. Furthermore, since launching an ICBM from Iran towards the United States or Europe requires going somewhat against the rotation of Earth the challenge is greater. As pointed out by missile and space security expert Dr. David Wright, an ICBM capable of reaching targets in the United States would need to have a range longer than 11,000 km. Drawing upon the experience of France in making solid-fuel ICBMs, Dr. Wright estimates it may take 40 years for Iran to develop a similar ICBM – assuming it has the intention to kick off such an effort. A liquid fueled rocket could be developed sooner, but there is little evidence in terms of rocket testing that Iran has kicked off such an effort.

In any case, it appears that informed European officials are not really afraid of any hypothetical Iranian missiles. For example, the Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, once made light of the whole scenario telling Foreign Policy, “If the mullahs have a target list we believe we are quite low on it.” As if to emphasize that point, the Europeans don’t appear to be pulling their weight in terms of funding the system. “We love the capability but just don’t have the money,” one European military official stated in reference to procuring the interceptors.

Similarly, the alleged threat from North Korea is also not all that urgent.

It seems U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing a project that will have little national security benefits either for the United States or NATO countries. In contrast, it may well create a dangerous false sense of security. It has already negatively impacted ties with Russia and China.

Q: (CB) Isn’t Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program a big concern in arguing for a missile defense? Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel said Iran may cross some red-line in the summer?

A: (YB) Iran’s nuclear program could be a concern, but the latest report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) says Iran has not even decided to make nuclear weapons yet. Building, testing and miniaturizing a warhead to fit on a missile takes years – after a country decides to do so. In any case, no matter how scary that hypothetical prospect, one would not want a missile defense system that could be easily defeated to address that alleged eventual threat. Even if you believe the threat exists now, you may want a system that is effective, not a midcourse system that has inherent flaws.

Incidentally, the DNI’s report explicitly states: “we assess Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU [weapons grade uranium] before this activity is discovered.” As for the red-line drawn by Prime Minister Netanyahu: his track-record on predicting Iranian nuclear weaponization has been notoriously bad. As I point out in a recent piece for Reuters, in 1992 Mr. Netanyahu said Iran was three to five years from a bomb. I assess he is still wrong, more than 20 years later.

Lastly, even if Iran (or other nations) obtained nuclear weapons in the future, they can be delivered in any number of ways- not just via missiles. In fact, nuclear missiles have the benefit of being self-deterring – nations are actually hesitant to use nuclear weapons if they are mated to missiles. Other nations know that the United States can pinpoint the launch sites of missiles. The same cannot be said of a nuclear device placed in a sailboat, a reality that could precipitate the use of that type of device due to the lack of attribution. So one has to carefully consider if it makes sense to dissuade the placement of nuclear weapons on missiles. If an adversarial nation has nuclear weapons it may be best to have them mated to missiles rather than boats.

Q: (CB) It seems that the Russians are still concerned about the missile defense system, even after Defense Secretary Hagel said that the fourth phase of EPAA plan is canceled. Why are they evidently still concerned?

A: (YB) The Russians probably have four main concerns with NATO missile defense, even after the cancellation of Phase 4 of EPAA. For more details on some of these please see the report Ted Postol and I wrote.

1. The first is geopolitical: the Russians have never been happy about the Eastward expansion of NATO and they see joint U.S.-Polish and U.S.-Romanian missile defense bases near their borders as provocative. This is not to say they are right or wrong, but that is most likely their perception. These bases are to be built before Phase 4 of the EPAA, so they are still in the plans.

2. The Russians do not concur with the alleged long-range missile threat from Iran. One cannot entirely blame them when the Polish foreign minister himself makes light of the alleged threat saying, “If the mullahs have a target list we believe we are quite low on it.” Russian officials are possibly confused and their military analysts may even be somewhat alarmed, mulling what the real intent behind these missile defense bases could be, if – in their assessment – the Iran threat is unrealistic, as in fact was admitted to by the Polish foreign minister. The Russians also have to take into account unexpected future changes which may occur on these bases, for instance: a change in U.S. or Polish or Romanian administrations; a large expansion of the number or types of interceptors; or, perhaps even nuclear-tipped interceptors (which were proposed by former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld about ten years ago).

3. Russian military planners are properly hyper-cautious, just like their counterparts at the Pentagon, and they must assume a worst-case scenario in which the missile defense system is assumed to be effective, even when it isn’t. This concern likely feeds into their fear that the legal balance of arms agreed to in New START may be upset by the missile defense system.

Their main worry could be with the mobile ship-based platforms and less with the European bases, as  explained in detail in the study Ted Postol and I did. Basically, the Aegis missile defense cruisers could be placed off of the East Coast of the U.S. and – especially with Block IIA/B interceptors –engage Russian warheads. Some statements from senior U.S. officials probably play into their fears. For instance, General Cartwright has been quoted as saying, “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.” To certain Russian military planners’ ears that may not sound like a limited system aimed at a primitive threat from Iran.

Because the mobile ship-based interceptors (hypothetically placed off of the U.S. East Coast ) could engage Russian warheads, Russian officials may be able claim this as an infringement on New START parity.

Missile defenses that show little promise of working well can, nevertheless, alter perceptions that the strategic balance between otherwise well-matched states is stable. Even when missile defenses reveal that they possess little, if any technical capabilities, they can still cause cautious adversaries and competitors to react as if they might work. The United States’ response to the Cold War era Soviet missile defense system was similarly overcautious.

4. Finally, certain Russian military planners may worry about the NATO EPAA missile defense system because in Phase 3, the interceptors are to be based on the SM-3 Block IIA booster. The United States has conducted research using this same type of rocket booster as the basis of a hypersonic-glide offensive strike weapon called ArcLight. Because such offensive hyper-glide weapons could fit into the very same vertical launch tubes – on the ground in Poland and Romania, or on the Aegis ships – used for the defensive interceptors, the potential exists for turning a defensive system into an offensive one, in short order. Although funding for ArcLight has been eliminated in recent years, Russian military planners may continue to worry that perhaps the project “went black” [secret], or that it may be resuscitated in the future. In fact, a recent Federal Business Opportunity (FBO) for the Department of the Navy calls for hypersonic weapons technologies that could fit into the same Mk. 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) tubes that the SM-3 missile defense interceptors are also placed in.

To conclude, advocates of missile defense who say we need cooperation on missile defense to improve ties with Russia have the logic exactly backward: In large part, the renewed tension between Russia and the United States is about missile defense. Were we to abandon this flawed and expensive idea, our ties with Russia — and China — would naturally improve. And, in return, they could perhaps help us more with other foreign policy issues such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria. As it stands, missile defense is harming bilateral relations with Russia and poisoning the well of future arms control.

Q: (CB) Adding to the gravity of Secretary Hagel’s announcement , last week China expressed worry about Ground-Based Interceptors, the Bush administration’s missile defense initiative in Poland discarded by the Obama administration in 2009, in favor of Phase 4 of the EPAA. Why is there concern with not only the Aegis ship-based system, but also the GBIs on the West Coast?

A: (YB) Like the Russians, Chinese military analysts are also likely to assume the worst-case scenario for the system (ie. that it will work perfectly) in coming up with their counter response . Possessing a much smaller nuclear arsenal than Russia or the United States, to China, even a few interceptors can be perceived as making a dent in their deterrent forces. And I think the Chinese are likely worried about both the ship-based Aegis system as well as the West Coast GBIs.

And this concern on the part of the Chinese is nothing new. They have not been as vocal as the Russians, but it is evident they were never content with U.S. and NATO plans. For instance, the 2009 Bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission pointed out that “China may already be increasing the size of its ICBM force in response to its assessment of the U.S. missile defense program.” Such stockpile increases, if they are taking place, will probably compel India, and, in turn, Pakistan to also ramp up their nuclear weapon numbers.

The Chinese may also be looking to the future and think that U.S. defenses may encourage North Korea to field more missiles than it may originally have been intending – if and when the North Koreans make long range missiles – to make sure some get through the defense system. This would have an obvious destabilizing effect in East Asia which the Chinese would rather avoid.

Some U.S. media outlets have also said the ship-based Aegis system could be used against China’s DF-21D anti-ship missile, when the official U.S. government position has always been that the system is only intended only against North Korea (in the Pacific theater). Such mission creep could sound provocative to the Chinese, who were told that the Aegis system is not “aimed at” China.

In reality, while the Aegis system’s sensors may be able to help track the DF-21D it is unlikely that the interceptors could be easily modified to work within the atmosphere where the DF-21D’s kill vehicle travels. (It could perhaps be intercepted at apogee during the ballistic phase). A recent CRS report was quite explicit that the DF-21D is a threat which remains unaddressed in the Navy: “No Navy target program exists that adequately represents an anti-ship ballistic missile’s trajectory,’ Gilmore said in the e-mail. The Navy ‘has not budgeted for any study, development, acquisition or production’ of a DF-21D target, he said.”

Chinese concerns about U.S. missile defense systems are also a source of great uncertainty, reducing Chinese support for promoting negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). China’s leaders may wish to maintain the option of future military plutonium production in response to U.S. missile defense plans.

The central conundrum of midcourse missile defense remains that while it creates incentives for adversaries and competitors of the United States to increase their missile stockpiles, it offers no credible combat capability to protect the United States or its allies from this increased weaponry.

Q: (CB) Will a new missile defense site on the East Coast protect the United States? What would be the combat effectiveness of an East Coast site against an assumed Iranian ICBM threat?

A: (GL) I don’t see any real prospect for even starting a program for interceptors such as the [East Coast site] NAS is proposing any time soon in the current budget environment, and even if they did it probably would not be available until the 2020s. The recent announcement of the deployment of additional GBI interceptors is, in my view, just cover for getting rid of the Block II Bs, and was chosen because it was relatively ($1+ billion) inexpensive and could be done quickly.

The current combat effectiveness of the GBIs against an Iranian ICBM must be expected to be low. Of course there is no current Iranian ICBM threat. However, the current GMD system shows no prospect of improved performance against any attacker that takes any serious steps to defeat it as far out in time, as plans for this system are publicly available. Whether the interceptors are based in Alaska or on the East Coast makes very little difference to their performance.

Q: (CB) There were shortcomings reported by the Defense Science Board and the National Academies regarding the radars that are part of the system. Has anything changed to improve this situation?

A: (GL) With respect to radars, the main point is that basically nothing has happened. The existing early warning radars can’t discriminate [between real warheads and decoys]. The only radar that could potentially contribute to discrimination, the SBX, has been largely mothballed.

Q: (CB) Let’s say the United States had lots of money to spend on such a system, would an East Coast site have the theoretical ability to engage Russian warheads? Regardless of whether Russia could defeat the system with decoys or countermeasures, does the system have an ability to reach or engage the warheads? In short, could such a site be a concern for Russia?

A: (YB) If you have a look at Fig 8(a) and 8(b) in the report Ted Postol and I wrote you’ll see pretty clearly why an East Coast site might be a concern for Russia, especially with faster interceptors that are proposed for that site. Now I’m not saying it necessarily should be a concern – because they can defeat the system rather easily – but it may be. Whether they object to it or not vocally depends on other factors also. For instance, such a site will obviously not be geopolitically problematic for the Russians.

Charles P. Blair is the Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats at the Federation of American Scientists.

Dr. Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist, is professor and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

Dr. George N. Lewis is a senior research associate at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell University.