Moves in Congress to cut $85 million in funding won’t greatly delay a planned Ground-based Midcourse missile Defense (GMD) program that would be installed in Europe, Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering III, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director, said.

He hailed a successful GMD system test, where a target missile simulated a threatening long-range missile soaring out of North Korea, as helpful to the European plan. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Oct. 1, 2007.)

In a Pentagon news briefing, Obering said the cut would “absolutely not” be a show-stopper for the planned European missile shield defending against missiles launched from Middle Eastern nations such as Iran.

For example, he said, Congress still is providing enough funds that if Poland (interceptors) and the Czech Republic (radar) agree, work could proceed on surveys and geotechnical matters.

The funds cut would delay the program by only six months to a year at worst, he said, depending on when the host nations agree to the plan.

On other topics, Obering and Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart Jr., commander of U.S. Northern Command, made these points:

  • The U.S. ballistic missile shield can respond to enemy missile threats if they arise.
  • Success of a GMD missile test last week helps to persuade the Europeans that GMD works and they should agree to host the missile shield installation.
  • Talks continue with Russia on potentially including Russian radar installations (Gabala, Azerbaijan) in the European GMD system.
  • It is wrong to say that the GMD interceptors could take down Russian ICBMs, as Russia has alleged. MIT Prof. Theodore Postol last week asserted that the Russians are correct and the interceptors could hit Russian ICBMs.
  • A further GMD system test will be mounted next year against a target missile using countermeasures, sometime in the February – May time frame.
  • Two to three tests a year are expected for ballistic missile defense systems.
  • The North Korean threat in developing long-range missiles by 2015 means there is no time to lose for developing U.S. missile defenses.
  • If the Czech Republic were to reject the request for it to host a GMD radar installation or Poland were to reject the request for it to host the interceptors site, the United States could request some other nation or nations to do so, but that would not be “optimum” in terms of an ideal site or sites.
  • Some lawmakers have said the United States could protect Europe against Iranian missiles by deploying the sea-based Aegis system, but Obering said that would be problematical. While the GMD missile is well tested and proven to be able to take out missiles such as Iran might fire at Europe, “we have not even begun the development, in terms of the sea- based capability, that would be able to engage an intermediate range or an ICBM threat.” Therefore, Obering concluded, “the sea-based is not a technical option for several years,” not until around 2014 or 2015, and Iran might already have a long-range missile capability by then. The sea-based radar wouldn’t measure up to the radar to be emplaced in the Czech Republic, and the sea-based approach would require too many ships to cover the area that the GMD system would protect. The sea-based approach is “just not a cost-effective solution,” he said.
  • China is developing advanced missile capabilities, and that is something the United States must be cognizant of, Obering said. But for now, MDA is focused on countering the real near-term threats posed by Iran and North Korea.

Obering expressed satisfaction with a winning performance by the GMD system as it killed a target U.S. ICBM. “This was a test in which we tried to emulate an attack from a country like North Korea into the United States with an intercept of that missile from Alaska,” he said.

This winning performance will help the United States to persuade the Czechs and Poles to host the proposed GMD European system, according to Obering.

He said, “I think [the winning test] helps us in a very real way, because, as I have had conversations with our European partners and allies and NATO partners in the past, one of the questions I do get asked is, ‘Well, this system is not proven. It doesn’t work, right? So why are you even worrying about this now?’ And I think [the test] goes a long [way] to answering that question” in the affirmative.

The successful test adds to a string of lustrous performances scored by the U.S. ballistic missile shield, Obering said.?”Depending on how you want to count and where you start the count, [from 2001] this was the sixth successful intercept in nine attempts for the long- range [GMD] system,” he said. “Right now we’re about 30 of 38 attempts overall in the program for successful hit-to-kill intercepts with our land-based mobile — the THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] program, for example, and the PAC-3, the Aegis, as well as the ground-based midcourse.”

He was asked whether MDA at this point could protect the United States from an attacking long-range enemy missile.

“This builds more and more confidence with respect to — does the system work? The answer is yes to that,” he said.

Further, “Is it going to work against more complex threats in the future? We believe it will, as we bring more and more assets on line, such as the very powerful sea-based X- band radar and improvements to both the interceptor system as well as those sensors.”

As he has previously, however, Obering said these formidable capabilities are focused against threats from rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea, rejecting claims that the GMD system will be able to take out Russian ICBMs.

The European GMD system “has nothing to do with the Russians,” but rather “is clearly designed for North Korea and Iran, and there’s a good technical foundation for that.”

Obering contrasted the plan to place a mere 10 GMD interceptors in Europe against the fact that “there’s hundreds of Russian missiles and thousands of warheads, with very advanced countermeasures,” he said. The key point, he added, is that “this [GMD] system is not designed for that.”

Rather, “we are designing it such that the countries like North Korea, Iran or other rogue nations that may emerge — if they use those more advanced countermeasure techniques on their limited inventories, can the system handle that? We believe that it will be able to keep pace with that type of a progression.”

Obering stressed that even though the U.S. interceptors will boast multiple kill vehicles, that doesn’t mean that any one interceptor would be able to take out many enemy missiles.

Rather, he explained, the multiple kill vehicles in each interceptor are required to counter the multiple warheads or decoys that an enemy missile might spew forth.

“Very importantly, we are developing a multiple kill vehicle that will go on these interceptors,” Obering said. “And that will allow what we call a volume kill to be able to handle those more complex threat suites. So it won’t allow an interceptor to be able to counter multiple missiles. It will allow one interceptor to be able to counter a complex single threat suite.”

That contradicts Russian claims.

“We now have not had a major problem in the system for over two-and-a-half years, and so we’re making great steady progress in terms of showing that this system does work, and this is a major step forward in being able to show that,” he said.

Obering also was asked about a Russian offer to make its radars available to help any European GMD system spot and track incoming enemy missiles. Russia at times has raged against the GMD proposal, saying it targets Russian ICBMs and threatening various dire actions if the GMD system is built, but at other times Russia has offered to be helpful and participate in the GMD system.

Obering said the Russian offer still is on the table for discussion, but he repeated earlier comments that that radar is incapable of providing the tracking data that the GMD system would require, though the Russian radar feed might be useful as an additional sensor source for the GMD system, in addition to the advanced radar that would be installed in the Czech Republic.

“The concern that we had all along is that the frequency of that [Russian radar in Gabala], that is a wide-area surveillance radar, it is not a precision tracking radar. So it’s not the same type of radar that we are offering to put in the Czech Republic.”

Rather, the radar that MDA would provide would be “a very, very precise X-band radar that we’ve been using for almost 10 years in our test program, very well characterized. The radar at Gabala is a VHF radar that has a different functionality. It would be very nice to be able to use that radar in conjunction with the radar in Gabala. I think that would be the ideal solution.”

Thus at this point, “that’s something that we will continue to talk about with the Russians,” he said.

Some lawmakers and others have criticized the overall U.S. multi-layered ballistic missile shield, wondering whether systems in development could suddenly switch to operational status to take down an incoming enemy missile. Aside from the GMD system, the missile shield includes programs such as the Airborne Laser, the sea-based Aegis system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and more.

The answer is that between MDA and the U.S. armed services, protection would be provided, according to a senior Army officer.?”We can bring missiles up or take them down as need be so that they [MDA] can continue doing the testing,” according to Gen. Gene Renuart Jr., commander of Northern Command.

“They’ll move the radars in and out of the network so that they can continue software upgrades and the like,” Renuart explained.

“But in terms of do I feel comfortable that, should a threat develop, I’m fully confident that we have all of the pieces in place that, if the nation needed to, we could respond” to an enemy threat.

Obering agreed that it is possible to perform both development and defense against enemy missiles, simultaneously.

“We actually have today the ability to set up an operational capability and to continue an operational capability while in parallel we are developing new software and new capability to put onto the network,” Obering said. “It just turns out that at the moment, we’re using both of those, okay? But we have the ability now to have continuous operations while we do development and testing.”