U.S. Missile Defenses Need Upgrade, Research Council Says

Tuesday, 11 September 2012 12:12 PM

A $34 billion system of ground- based interceptors in Alaska and California to defend the U.S. against a potential missile attack by North Korea or Iran needs to be upgraded, the National Research Council said.

In a report requested by Congress, the research organization called today for adding faster, smaller weapons and building a third site in a northeastern state, an expansion that has been sought by Republican lawmakers.

Boeing Co. manages the system of 26 Orbital Science Corp. interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California armed with Raytheon Co. hit-to-kill warheads. The system hasn’t had a successful test intercept since December 2008.

Improvements in the costly system “‘will take time, money and careful testing, but unless this is done,’’ it ‘‘will not be able to work against any but the most primitive attacks,’’ according to the Washington-based council, part of the National Academies. The system ‘‘can, if it works as designed, deal successfully with the initial threats from North Korea,’’ according to the report, which examined many phases of missile defense. These included now-defunct Pentagon programs to hit a missile shortly after launch, in its so-called boost phase.

The council also examined the Obama administration’s ‘‘European Phased Adaptive Approach’’ that revised a Bush administration plan to place missile interceptors in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic as a hedge against Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles.

‘Right Track’

The group praised the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, as well as the Army and Navy, for appearing to be ‘‘on the right track’’ developing mobile ground and sea-based programs such as the Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Aegis, Thaad and advanced Patriot systems to protect deployed U.S. troops and allies overseas or in combat zones.

Developed and deployed with limited objectives such as ‘‘dealing with an early generation North Korean threat of very limited numbers and capability,’’ the U.S.-based system has shortcomings that limit its effectiveness against ‘‘even modestly improved’’ North Korean missiles and potential Iranian weapons, the council said.

The U.S.-based system could be modified at an ‘‘affordable cost’’ and in time to blunt potential North Korean and Iranian missile improvements, the report found, citing the Missile Defense Agency’s prior development programs as laying the groundwork.

‘More Capable’

The council recommended replacing the current Raytheon warheads with a ‘‘heavier, more capable’’ version that has improved on-board sensors. The most advanced Raytheon warheads cost about $39 million apiece, according to the report.

Richard Lehner, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, said in an e-mailed statement that the deployed system ‘‘provides an effective defense of the homeland against the type of limited long-range threat we could face from North Korea and Iran.’’ The agency hasn’t been directed by the Pentagon to replace the existing interceptor, he said.

An additional missile defense site equipped with new interceptors would improve the U.S.’s capability to protect the continent, including Canada ‘‘against the sort of threat that can prudently be expected to emerge from North Korea or Iran over the coming decade or so,” the council said.

The report boosts efforts by House and Senate Republicans to establish a northeastern U.S. interceptor site. The House- passed defense authorization bill includes the provision; the version awaiting a Senate floor vote doesn’t.

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