The United States should concentrate on midcourse missile defense systems and “stop spending money on boost-phase defense systems of any kind,” said a new, congressionally mandated report released yesterday by a committee of the National Research Council. 

“For too long, the U.S. has been committed to expensive missile defense strategies without sufficient consideration of the costs and real utility,” said David Montague, committee co-chair and retired president of the missile system division at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space.  “As the primary agency in charge, the Missile Defense Agency must strengthen its system analysis and engineering capabilities so that it can better evaluate new initiatives before significant funding is committed.”

Interestingly, development has ended on the two boost-phase defense programs: the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) terminated for financial reasons in 2009 and the Airborne Laser (ABL), terminated and shrouded in the Arizona boneyard early this year.

Northrop Grumman [NOC], Raytheon [ RTN], Orbital Sciences [ORB] and ATK [ATK] worked on the KEI program. Boeing [BA], Northrop Grumman [NOC] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] were developing the Airborne Laser.

Former undersecretary of defense for policy and study co-chair Walter Slocombe said: “Our recommended approach should provide the most effective missile defense capabilities–particularly for homeland defense–while taking into account the surrounding operational, technical, and cost issues.”

The committee was asked to assess the “feasibility, practicality, and affordability” of boost-phase missile defenses and compare them to alternatives for countering limited nuclear or conventional ballistic missile attacks by regional actors such as Iran or North Korea.

Boost-phase defense is not “practical or feasible” the report said, because there are only a few minutes to intercept enemy missiles during the boost phase and air- or ground-based systems generally are not be located close enough to potential threats to be effective. 

Putting boost phase interceptors in space, similar to a concept called “Brilliant Pebbles” early on in the Strategic Defense Initiative days in the 1980s that resurfaces off and on, would require hundreds of satellites and cost as much as $500 billion to acquire and operate over a 20-year span–at least 10 times as much as any other approach, the committee estimated.         

Any practical missile defense system, the committee concluded, must rely primarily on intercepting enemy missiles in midcourse likely the most effective BMD of the U.S. homeland. 

Midcourse defense provides more battle space for multiple opportunities to identify and shoot down targets, the report said. 

For example, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which deploys 30 ground-based midcourse interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg AFB, Calif., provides an “early but fragile” U.S. homeland defense capability for a potential threat from North Korea, the report says. 

However, GMD has a limited ability to defend the United States from missiles launched by countries other than North Korea, and the Missile Defense Agency’s currently planned improvements will not adequately address them.

Thus, the committee recommended adding a third interceptor site to the U.S. northeast and several technical fixes to make the GMD both more effective and less expensive. The recommended improvements could be done within the current $45 billion budget request by the Defense Department for fiscal years 2010 through 2016 provided other unnecessary missile defense programs are eliminated, the report said.

Rep. Mike Turner, (R-Ohio), who chairs the House Armed Services panel on  Strategic Forces, said yesterday the report validates “the provision of the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act which calls for the development of an East Coast site to improve the defense of the United States.”

The report also said the first three phases of the Phased Adaptive Approach, under way in Europe since 2009, “if properly implemented,” should provide an effective defense of Europe. However, if the report’s recommended improvements are made to the U.S. GMD, then the final phase of the program in Europe–aimed at preventing long-range missiles launched in Iran from reaching the U.S.–should be canceled because it would be unnecessary for European defense and less than optimal for U.S. protection.

In his statement, Turner said, reports have pointed out that the PAA was “ill-conceived and prematurely rolled out by a president more focused on Russia’s concerns than defense of the United States. The president has invested years and billions of dollars in this system, which leaves us at a strategic disadvantage in countering what is the ultimate goal of nations like Iran and North Korea–missiles that could carry weapons of mass destruction to threaten the American people. “

The study was funded by the Missile Defense Agency. Reviewers included former Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Strategic Command retired Lt. Gen. Joseph Cosumano and retired Vice Adm. George “Pete” Nanos, Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory.