Holes in the Shield
Barely a week after President Obama announced a revised missile defense system for western Europe, Iran has provided a reminder of why the shield is so important. Early Sunday morning (U.S. time), the Islamic regime successfully test-fired at least three, short-range missiles, and promised to launch a medium-range Shahab-3--capable of reaching Israel--within 24 hours. The latest tests are part of an exercise conducted by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls the nation's missile forces.
English-language Press TV reported the Fateh-110, Tondar-69 and Zelzal were test fired in a missile defense exercise, but did not give specifics on range or other details. All are short-range, surface-to-surface missiles.
Gen. Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, told reporters Iran tested a multiple missile launcher for the first time. Press TV showed pictures of at least two missiles being fired simultaneously and said they were from Sunday's drill in a desert in central Iran. In the clip, men could be heard shouting "Allahu Akbar" as the missiles were launched.
"The message of the war game for some arrogant countries which intend to intimidate is that we are able to give a proper, strong answer to their hostility quickly," the Web site of state television quoted Salami as saying. He said the missiles successfully hit their targets.
Salami told reporters Iran had reduced the missiles and their ranges so they could be used in quick, short-range engagements. He also said Iran would test medium-range Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles on Sunday night and long-range Shahab-3 missiles on Monday, during the drill set to last several days.
Iran's continued expansion of its missile forces raises legitimate questions about the Obama plan, namely: can a defensive shield built largely around naval platforms (at least in the early years), provide adequate coverage for our allies in Europe and even portions of the CONUS?
The answer to that question is problematic at best, although such concerns have been largely ignored by the press. Anxious to put the best spin on Mr. Obama's missile defense proposal, members of the "state-controlled media" (to use ElRushbo's term) and the Pentagon press corps have failed to point out some rather obvious "holes" in the proposed shield.
For starters, the U.S. Navy doesn't have enough ships capable of performing the ballistic missile defense (BMD) role, and won't for several years--that's one reason that President Obama and his advisers have referred to a 2012 "roll-out" date for sea-based missile defenses covering western Europe. By that time, the Navy hopes to have enough cruisers and destroyers, equipped with a modified Aegis battle management system and interceptor missiles.
But there is genuine debate over how many ships are required for the BMD mission, and balancing that assignment against the other tasking for those vessels. Aegis cruisers and destroyers perform a variety of missions, including fleet air defense for carrier battle groups. Detaching vessels for missile defense will mean more time at sea for other ships--and their crews.
There's also the matter of how many ships will be required for missile defense. Ronald O'Rourke, a naval affairs specialist for the Congressional Research Service, detailed that issue (and other potential problems associated with sea-based BMD) in a 2008 report. Indeed, O'Rourke's research indicates that the Navy is recommending a massive increase in the number of BMD-capable vessels, to meet projected requirements. He cites the comments of a senior Navy admiral in a 2008 session with reporters:
The current Navy program to convert 18 cruisers and destroyers to the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability, which will be completed by the end of this year, will have to be expanded to cover roughly 90 ships, a senior Navy officer said yesterday.
“Eighteen ships is not enough to provide a robust missile defense capability,” said Vice Adm. Barry McCullough, deputy chief of naval operations, speaking before a National Defense University breakfast forum at the Capitol Hill Club.
“The real number is somewhere around 90,” he said, because there are increasing requests for BMD coverage coming from combatant commanders in the European theater, the Central Command theater and the Pacific theater.
Readers will note that McCullough's comments came long before Aegis vessels became the backbone of the planned European missile shield. To our knowledge, no one has offered a revised requirement, based on the expanded mission requirements. The Navy currently has 18 vessels capable of BMD operations; only two are currently assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, which will have primary responsibility for anti-missile operations in European and Middle East waters.
While the number of BMD vessels in the Atlantic Fleet will certainly grow, no one seems to know how many will be required. To meet the 88-90 ship requirement outlined by Admiral McCullough, the Navy would have to convert three additional Aegis cruisers and up to 62 DDG-51 (Arleigh Burke-class) destroyers for the missile defense role.
These upgrades are part of a planned modernization effort for Aegis combatants, a program that is already underway. But the conversion process will be slow; according to another CRS analysis, the Navy will receive a total of two modernized cruisers in both FY 2009 and 2010, and three per year beginning in 2012.
However, the modernization effort is actually a dual-phased program; weapons systems upgrades come two years after other, planned improvements on the ship's hull, mechanical and electrical systems. For Burke-class destroyers, the first set of upgrades will begin in 2010, with weapons systems improvements (on the same vessels) coming two years later. Under this timetable, the Navy will get two more BMD-capable destroyers in 2012. That number will increase to three per year in 2013-2015, and jump to nine ships a year in 2016.
If all goes according to plans, the U.S. fleet will gain at least 26 additional BMD vessels over the next seven years, bringing the grand total to 38. Still, questions remain about using a sea-based option as the primary defense option, and not a complement to the land-based system, which was cancelled by Mr. Obama. Ironically, those concerns were raised by the Navy Admiral in charge of the Aegis program. From a November 2007 press report:
It would take a large number of U.S. Navy Aegis weapons system ships to shield Europe against enemy missiles from the Middle East, if the United States attempted to use the sea-based system to guard Europe instead of the Ground-based Midcourse missile Defense (GMD) system proposed for the Czech Republic and Poland.
That was the assessment yesterday of Rear Adm. Alan Hicks, program director of the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, at a symposium of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington think tank, held at the National Press Club.
“Certainly by the near-term capability, between now and 2015, that’s a lot of ships, and I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said.
Further, those ships wouldn’t be stationed in an ideal location, so that the interceptors they would fire to take down enemy weapons would “run out of juice” in pursuing those threats.
Admiral Hick's comments highlight other, potential problems with the Obama plan. Russia, which lobbied actively against missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, would almost certainly protest a near-permanent presence of U.S. cruisers and destroyers in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean.
The same holds true for the planned, land-based deployment of SM-3 missiles (the same interceptor used on American naval vessels) and THAAD batteries in Germany and Turkey. Governments in those nations might prove even more vulnerable to Russian pressure, potentially denying the U.S. basing rights for those defensive systems.
There are also questions about operational effectiveness and cost. The ground-based system proposed by the Bush Administration offered protection to all of Europe (and much of the U.S.) from Iranian missile attack. By comparison, the initial Aegis system--using SM-3IB missiles--provides no defense for the CONUS, and only limited protection for Europe, assuming the system is integrated with long-range, X-band tracking radars. The sea-based system will offer some defense of U.S. targets by 2015, when the SM-3IIA missile becomes available.
In terms of cost, Mr. Obama's claims about a "less expensive" sea-based system are simply false. The CRS notes that the Aegis BMD option will have a higher price tag than the baseline, land-based system and operating costs for the naval option will be "two or three times higher," based on a 35-year life cycle.
To be fair, the Obama proposal is better than nothing. But it is far from being the "better option" described by the President and his advisers. Missile defense has (apparently) survived under a Democratic Administration, but just barely. Europeans--and Americans--should be concerned about the reduced level of protection from Iranian missile attacks.