Top General: Missile Defense Is Dead, Long Live Missile Defense (Updated)
Ballistic missile defense as we know it is all but dead, one of the country’s top military just declared. But already, there are new anti-missile priorities taking shape.
General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, relayed the message yesterday to the defense industry. "Ballistic missiles are about as passé as e-mail," he said to an audience of missile-defense contractors. "Nobody does it anymore. It’s just gone… no stupid person, enemy out there would be so silly as to come at us with a minimum-energy trajectory. Give me a break. Even the people we would call ‘Third World’ have gone beyond that."
The administration of President George W. Bush poured around $10 billion a year into ballistic missile defense; it focused particular effort on fielding a limited missile defense capability that would protect the United States from a lone missile lobbed by a rogue state (i.e., North Korea). It also expended serious political capital trying to seal a politically controversial deal to station missile defense interceptors in Eastern Europe.
In theory, the European site was supposed to protect the United States and Europe from long-range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East (although Iran has yet to acquire a missile that could reach the United States). Cartwright said missile defense funds would shift toward deterring more realistic threats. "The architecture associated with those terminal defense type capabilities, those area defense type capabilities that have the mobility and have the capability to be out there to address those threats are where we are going to start to put money," he said. "Because it is the most likely."
That’s good news for the developers of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, a "hit-to-kill" air defense system that can knock down short- and medium-range missiles at greater ranges and higher altitudes than the Patriot system. But it’s not so great for defense contractors who are designing far-out systems to destroy enemy missiles in the vulnerable "boost" phase. As Noah noted earlier today, one major boost-phase program is already in the crosshairs: the laser-equipped Boeing 747 that is supposed to zap missiles out of the sky as they rise from the launch pad.
Observers are also wondering what this shift means for Boeing’s Ground Based Midcourse Defense, or GMD. The Bush administration activated GMD at two sites, one in Alaska and one in California; according to Reuters, Cartwright said the future of the system would depend on whether it could counter other threats. "The more utility, the more willing you’re going to be to put money in it," he said.
Interestingly, Gen. Bantz Craddock, the head of U.S. European Command, said in written testimony submitted today that the U.S. Navy was studying the feasibility of stationing a missile-defense-capable Aegis ship to defend the Eastern Mediterranean region. In his testimony, Craddock said the Navy was leading an "urgent effort" to develop a command-and-control architecture for an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ship operating in defense of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean.
At first glance, that sounds like a more realistic way to counter the Iran missile threat than deploying the long-range GMD system in Europe. The U.S. military has previously looked at the possibility of creating an "instant" ballistic-missile defense system by tying the land-based X-band radar developed for Thaad with sea-based radars and interceptors; Rick Lehner of the Missile Defense Agency told Danger Room a transportable X-band radar has been used in previous tests to provide cueing information to an Aegis ship which then used the data to perform a simulated launch and intercept.
UPDATE: The Obama administration is also picking up on a top complaint of the missile defense critics: namely, that missile defense testing isn’t real enough. Elaine Grossman of Global Security Newswire quotes Peter Verga, the acting deputy defense policy chief, as saying: "I think anything the test community can do to reassure people that the tests are, in fact, operationally realistic is very important."
PHOTO: U.S. Army