Senate Democrats

Smarter, Stronger, More Effective Ballistic Missile Defense

Last month, President Obama announced his approval of the unanimous recommendation of Secretary of Defense Gates, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Administration’s national security team, for a “phased, adaptive approach” to U.S. missile defense in Europe.  The recommendation calls for a decisive shift from the previous Administration’S.2007 plan to reflect revised assessments of both the threats we face on the continent – specifically from Iranian ballistic missiles – and the capabilities and technologies we have to counter them.  As the President and Secretary Gates have outlined, the new approach would provide a more comprehensive and adaptable framework to address the immediate threat posed by Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles, while continuing and augmenting plans to address the potential long-range threats that could develop from Iran or North Korea. 

By deploying a system based on proven technology that “best responds to the threats we face,” the President asserted that “our new missile-defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and American allies.  It is more comprehensive than the previous program; it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost-effective; and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missile threats; and it ensures and enhances the protection of all our NATO allies.”[1]  

Commitment for stronger missile defense in Europe.  While the Obama Administration has called for modifying the structure of our program, the commitment to ensuring a strong – and in fact, enhanced – missile defense in Europe remains unchanged.  As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cartwright asserted in the Pentagon briefing announcing the revised approach, “One thing that has not changed is the set of priorities that we started with, which is the defense of the homeland first, defense of our deployed forces, and then friends and allies.”  Further, Secretary Gates added, “Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing… The circumstances, borders and threats may have changed, but that commitment continues.  I believe this new approach provides a better missile defense capability for our forces in Europe, for our European allies and eventually for our homeland than the program I recommended almost three years ago.”[2]

The need for this approach was proved just a week after the announcement, when Iran tested two short-range missiles capable of hitting Israel, many Arab states, and parts of Europe, including Turkey.  The previous program begun under President Bush would have been incapable of defending against these missiles, but the new system would provide full defense against regional ballistic missile threats in Europe in the first phase of its implementation.[3]

A better plan to confront evolving threats.  The Bush Administration’s framework for missile defense in Europe, adopted in early 2007, was designed to defend against the potential threat of long-range Iranian ballistic missiles, estimated to be possible around 2015.  It would have deployed ten ground-based interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar in the Czech Republic, planned to have the capability to intercept and destroy up to five long-range missiles.  The program remained in the planning phase and was not projected to be operational until 2017 at the earliest, with its first test not expected until 2010.[4] 

The unanimous recommendation from our top military officials to modify this 2007 plan emerged out an extensive, in-depth review of our ballistic missile defenses, undertaken as part of the congressionally-mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), led by the Department of Defense with significant input from our intelligence community and other national security agencies.  As the Pentagon outlined, two key drivers led to the recommendation to shift our approach in favor of an “adaptable architecture” for U.S. missile defense in Europe.  First, a new intelligence assessment of Iran’s missile capabilities found that Iran is developing short- and medium-range ballistic missiles more rapidly than previously projected – posing an increased and more immediate threat to the continent and U.S. forces deployed there – while it has been significantly slower in developing intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities.  Secondly, U.S. missile defense technologies and capabilities have advanced significantly in recent years, with improved interceptor capabilities as well as sensor technologies that provide new, more effective options for confronting missile threats in Europe.[5] 

In calling for a revised approach, the White House stated, “These changes in the threat as well as our capabilities and technologies underscore the need for an adaptable architecture.  [The new] architecture is responsive to the current threat, but also could incorporate relevant technologies quickly and cost-effectively to respond to evolving threats.”  Similarly, General Cartwright emphasized that “This is not a moving away of the defense of the homeland and the capabilities of the ground-based interceptor.  But what it is is an acknowledgement that there are capabilities out there that are able to, one, address the threat that has really emerged versus the threat that we initially postulated would be what we would call most dangerous, which is the threat to the United States, but the fact that the Iranians are starting to field, as have the …North Koreans, capabilities associated with intermediate- and medium- range and short-range ballistic missiles, in numbers that are substantially larger than could be addressed by 40 or 10 ground-based interceptors.  We’re talking about hundreds.  And the ability to go after these raids was one of the driving factors tactically that had to be addressed, both for our deployed forces and for those nations that are threatened by those missiles.”[6]   

Phased approach based on proven capabilities and technologies to address real threats.  In direct response to the changed threat assessments and technology advancements, the Department of Defense developed a four-phased, adaptive plan for missile defense in Europe.  Described by Secretary Gates as a “pragmatic” approach, it calls for building a network of increasingly capable sensors and Standard Missile (SM)-3 interceptors that will provide “real capacity as soon as possible” to address near term threats, while also taking “maximum advantage of new technologies to combat future threats.”  In the initial stage, to be completed by 2011, the plan will deploy Aegis ships with SM-3 interceptors in Northern and Southern Europe to protect our troops and Allies from regional ballistic missile threats; in the second phase, estimated to be operational by 2015, it will field upgraded sea- and land-based SM-3s in Southern and Central Europe to expand protection of the continent; in the third phase, it will introduce a more capable version of the SM-3 that is currently under development, which will provide full protection for our allies in Europe from short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles by 2018; and in the final phase, planned for 2020, it will field an even further improved SM-3 missile with anti-ICBM capabilities to augment current defense of the US homeland from Iranian long-range missile threats.[7]

While the system that would have been deployed under the old plan was based on untested technology and focused on a threat that does not yet exist, the new framework developed by the Department of Defense is designed to respond to the most immediate threats to the continent, using proven and increasingly capable technologies, that, over time, will be adaptable to provide better protection against emerging threats.  The SM-3 interceptors have had eight successful tests since 2007, and according to top Pentagon officials, are “more than capable of dealing with current threats from even multiple short and medium range missiles.”  And “although the Iranian long-range missile threat is not as immediate as we previously thought, this system will allow us to incorporate future defensive capabilities against such threats as they develop.”[8]

More immediately deployable to protect our NATO allies and American forces and strategic assets in Europe.  While the previous system would not have been able to defend against Iranian missiles until at least 2017 – and likely much later – this new approach will deploy an operational system by 2011 to protect the vulnerable parts of Europe and safeguard U.S. forces, civilian personnel and their families deployed to those regions.  As Secretary Gates emphasized, this revised structure is “more than able to deal with the threat from multiple short- and medium-range missiles – a very real threat to our allies and some 80,000 American troops based in Europe that was not addressed by the previous plan.”[9]  

A more comprehensive and increasingly capable system.  Even as we step-up efforts to defend the most vulnerable areas from near term threats, this approach will allow for expanded and enhanced protection at each phase of implementation.  Describing this, Secretary Gates stated that “Over time, this architecture is designed to continually incorporate new and more effective technologies, as well as more interceptors, expanding the range of coverage, improving our ability to knock down multiple targets and increasing the survivability of the overall system.” While the old plan would have left parts of Europe vulnerable and lacked the capacity to counter complex missile threats, the White House asserted that, “Starting in 2011, the phased, adaptive approach would systematically increase the defended area as the threat is expected to grow” and by 2018 would provide protection for all of Europe.[10] 

Stronger homeland defense.  The new structure will retain and enhance the homeland defense elements of the 2007 plan at the same time that it works to develop a more advanced version of the SM-3 interceptor with anti-ICBM capabilities.  Top national security officials have asserted that this approach will provide an added layer of defense of the homeland against long-range ballistic missile threats that could develop.  Under Secretary Flournoy and General Cartwright asserted that we will continue to improve and further augment the existing ground-based interceptor system now in place in Alaska and California, noting that these “U.S. based defenses will be made more effective by the forward basing of a TPY-2 radar – which we plan by 2011.”  Further, the deployment of an SM-3 missile with anti-ICBM capabilities in the later phase of the plan “would mean that, unlike the previous administration’s GBI-based system, Iranian missiles will have to defeat not one, but two very different kinds of missile defenses.”[11] 

Tougher for defending against Iran’s evolving threat.   The new approach will provide immediate, more effective protection from Iran’s near-term threat to American allies and our forces based in Europe, while also ensuring a strengthened defense against the potential threat of long-range Iranian missiles.  As Secretary Gates outlined, “every phase of this plan will include scores of SM-3 missiles, as opposed to the old plan of just 10 ground-based interceptors.  This will be far more effective should an enemy fire many missiles simultaneously – the kind of attack most likely to occur as Iran continues to build and deploy numerous short- and medium-range weapons.”[12] 

At the same time, the modified approach will sustain and augment plans for defending against potential long-range threats from Iran.  In a recent letter to Majority Leader Reid, National Security Advisor General Jones stated, “We will continue to improve the GBIs in the United States, which already provide for homeland defense against long-range ballistic missile threats.  If an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat were to materialize, the SM-3 Block IIB interceptors that we are planning to deploy in the later phases of the plan would be able to intercept an Iranian ICBM in its ascent phase.  This would provide an added layer of defense to augment the United States-based GBIs.”[13] 

More cost-effective, allowing for more expansive coverage.  General Jones also asserted that, once fielded, the cost of the land-based SM-3 interceptor would be “significantly less” than the Ground-Based Interceptor.  According to estimates, we will be able to field seven SM-3 interceptors at $10 million per interceptor, for what it would have cost to field one GBI, which runs $70 million per interceptor.  Under Secretary Flournoy and General Cartwright underscored that “This means that we can deploy scores of SM-3 interceptors, again enhancing our defensive capabilities.  Since Iran already possessed hundreds of short and medium range ballistic missiles, this is critical.”[14] 

A more flexible system with greater survivability to adapt to evolving threats.  Given the mobility of its system and lower-costs, the new plan will provide a significantly greater flexibility than the previously-planned structure to adapt as new threats emerge.  As the Director of the Missile Defense Agency highlighted in recent testimony, the revised approach to use land- and sea-based SM-3 interceptors, will allow us to move sensors and interceptors as necessary, providing critical flexibility to respond to changing threats and greater capacity to intercept missiles early in flight.  “[R]ather than waiting the more than five years needed to construct a new GBI missile field,” the land-based SM-3s can be relocated as the direction of the threat changes.  Under Secretary Flournoy and General Cartwright have highlighted that this approach will provide the capacity to “scale up our defenses, if necessary,” by deploying additional SM-3 interceptors faster; surge Aegis capable ships into areas during times of crisis “for more protection and to serve as a visible deterrent;” and deal more effectively with a wider range of missile tactics.[15]

Further, these senior Pentagon leaders say that “replacing the plan for a fixed radar site with a mix of sensors that are airborne, seaborne and ground-based will allow us to gather much more accurate data, and will offer better early warning and tracking options combined with a stronger networking capacity.”  And, “because it relies on a distributed network of sensors and interceptors, the new approach is more survivable – less vulnerable to destruction or interception – than the previous plan, which relied on a single large radar and a single interceptor field.”[16]

Does not erode our relationship with our European allies.  The previous plan to field a ground based radar system and ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic had not been fully embraced by these governments and had been met with considerable opposition from their people.  Polls earlier this year found that a majority of Poles and 60 percent of Czechs opposed hosting parts of the U.S. missile defense system on their territory.  At the same time, the proposed system was perceived as antagonistic by Russia.  In November, Russian President Medvedev threatened to set up tactical missiles on Poland’s border if the U.S. system was deployed.  By contrast, European leaders have largely welcomed the revised approach.  Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland stated that the new plan provides “a chance for strengthening Europe’s security” while NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen applauded the new approach and a new emphasis on cooperation with NATO, as “a positive step in the direction of an inclusive and transparent process, which I also think is in the interest of…the NATO alliance.”[17]

Reinforces our security commitment with our European allies and provides renewed opportunity for partnership on critical security issues.  In announcing the modified approach, President Obama stated that “We will continue to work cooperatively with our close friends and allies, the Czech Republic and Poland… Together we are committed to a broad range of cooperative efforts to strengthen our collective defense…”  As Lt. General O’Reilly stated in recent testimony, the new approach “offers greater opportunities for our close allies, including Poland and the Czech Republic, to collaborate on the missile defense architecture – by hosting sites or providing funding or capabilities that could be linked to provide a network of missile defenses.”  Officials also have noted that this approach also provides an opportunity for Russia to participate in a cooperative development of missile defense, opening the door to possibility of greater cooperation on other key national security issues, including efforts to contain Iran’s threat and negotiating an extension of START, which is scheduled to expire in December.[18]

Preserves development of defenses against long-range missiles.  While the phased, adaptive approach focuses near-term efforts on defending against the most likely near-term threats – short- and medium-range missiles – it does not abandon development of technologies designed to defend against long-range missiles capable of striking the United States.  In fact, in this year’s budget request, the Obama Administration pledged to “continue to robustly fund continued research and development to improve the capability we already have to defend against long-range rogue missile threats.”[19]

Critics of the Administration’s Approach Distort the Facts

Even as our top military leaders and national security officials have made clear that modifying our missile defense structure is a national security imperative – based on objective assessments of technological capabilities and a revised threat analysis from our intelligence community – many conservatives have seized this as an opportunity to score political points.  Secretary Gates lamented in a recent op-ed “when it comes to missile defense, some hold a view bordering theology that regards any change of plans or cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith.”  Instead of rhetoric and misinformation, the American people deserve an honest discussion about this critical national security program.

Claim: The Administration is shifting away from an operational missile defense program.  On the Senate floor last week, Senator Sessions stated, “What’s happened in this year’s budget request was a major shift from a very long lead plan to develop a very robust missile defense system.”  After outlining the budget’s plan to cut the kinetic energy interceptor, multiple-kill vehicle, and the airborne laser programs, he stated further, “…this is not just a little nibbling away in missile defense.  This is an erroneous policy that makes me nervous.  Because we have a system that is ready to go.”[20]

Fact:  There was no operational system in place under the previous program.  In the words of Secretary Gates, “to be clear, there is now no strategic missile defense in Europe…  The old plan offered nothing for almost a decade.”[21]    

Fact:  The Administration’s revised plan will ensure a more effective, robust system.  As MDA Director General O’Reilly outlined, “This new proposal is a more powerful missile defense, is deployable to theaters around the world, and is more adaptable to respond to threat uncertainties.”  It will provide faster coverage to vulnerable parts of Europe; enhanced protection to all NATO allies; augmented homeland defense against ICBM threats; and, when fully deployed, a more capable system for countering the full range of threats. [22]

Fact:  The Fiscal Year 2010 budget cut unworkable, non-viable missile defense programs, in order to field more capable systems to counter near term threats.  In describing plans to end three programs – the airborne laser, the multiple-kill vehicle, and the kinetic energy interceptor – Secretary Gates stated, “All were plainly unworkable, prohibitively expensive and could never be practically deployed…”  The Administration’s budget called for restructuring our missile defense program to focus on rogue state and theater missile threats.  For example, it provided a $700 billion boost in missile defense systems to better protect deployed U.S. and allied forces from a ballistic missile attack. [23]

Claim: The revised plan will take away our ability to counter an intercontinental ballistic missile from Iran.  On the Senate floor last week, Senator Inhofe stated, “I was deeply distressed…when we got the defense portion of the President’s budget” and learned of plans for “doing away with our commitment to Poland and the Czech Republic to have an opportunity there to knock down a missile, an ICBM coming to the United States from Iran, when we know they should be having that capability by around 2015.”[24]

Fact:  The old plan would not have provided the capacity to defend against long-range ballistic missiles until 2017, at the earliest.  Even under the most optimistic of timeframes, the ground-based interceptor system would not have been in place until 2017 or 2018.  And, as General O’Reilly noted, “the previously proposed European defense architecture was insufficient to counter the quantity of ballistic missiles threat faced by NATO and our forward deployed forces, and still provide redundant coverage of the U.S. homeland.[25]

Fact:  The Administration’s modified missile defense plan would provide a superior defense against potential Iranian ICBM threats.  The new approach not only will retain the key homeland defense components of the old plan; it will enhance these initiatives and also invest in new capabilities to more effectively counter longer range ballistic missile threats.  As described by Under Secretary Flournoy, “Our new approach also hedges against the possibility that threats from Iranian long-range missiles will evolve more rapidly than we currently predict.”  It will maintain the 30 ground-based interceptors deployed in the United States, plans for deploying a TPY-2 radar, as well as the continued development of the two-stage GBI.  And, in the final phases of the program, it will deploy advanced SM-3 interceptors with anti-ICBM capabilities, which will provide an added layer of defense of the homeland against long-range ballistic missile threats that could develop.[26]

Claim: The Administration’s plan would place our NATO allies and deployed service men and women at risk.  Senator Graham has claimed that”President Obama’s decision to abandon the missile defense shield is a strategic mistake.  The missile defense program is directed at dealing with a rogue missile attack from the Middle East, particularly Iran.  A rogue missile attack into Europe puts American service men and women, and our European allies, at risk.”[27]

Fact:  The new structure will provide more effective protection to our deployed troops and our allies in Europe six years earlier than previous plan.  As Under Secretary Flournoy testified, “Under the old plan, we were not going to be able to deploy a European missile defense system capable of protecting against Iranian missiles until at least 2017.  Under the new plan, we’ll be able to protect vulnerable parts of Europe and the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed there by the end of 2011.” Similarly,General Jones asserted that, “The new architecture will protect Europe (and our forces, families, and other civilians there) sooner, with greater capability, and flexibility than the previous program.”[28]

Claim:  The Administration’s new plan undermines America’s leadership and our commitment to our allies in Eastern Europe.  Senator McCain stated, “I am disappointed with the Administration’s decision to cancel plans to develop missile defenses in Eastern Europe.  This decision calls into question the security and diplomatic commitments the United States has made to Poland and the Czech Republic, and has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe.”[29]

Fact:  The new missile defense structure will sustain and, in fact, enhance our security commitment to Europe.  Some of the early reactions from Poland and our allies in Eastern Europe were based on what Under Secretary Flournoy called “erroneous and speculative press reporting.” Once fully briefed on the plan, Polish, Czech and NATO leaders have expressed support for the revised approach.  And while the old plan old would have left parts of Europe vulnerable, the modified plan will ensure effective protection for all of our NATO allies against short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missile threats by 2018. [30]

Fact:  The Administration’s approach would involve more allies than the previous plan.  Under Secretary Flournoy noted that “one of the many advantages of this new architecture is that it greatly increases…our ability to work with our European allies and our partners to strengthen extended deterrents and our mutual defenses.  The new architecture we are creating provides many more opportunities for alliance building and burden sharing between the United States and our NATO partners.”[31]

Claim: The Administration’s shift in plans was driven by an effort to “placate” Russia.  In a press release, Senator Vitter stated, “The cancellation of the missile defense program in Eastern Europe places us all in jeopardy.  Iran remains defiant in the eyes of the international community and has been working to advance its long-range missile program, and yet the Obama administration would rather placate Russia than shore up our defenses against this very real and growing nuclear threat.”[32]

Fact:  The Administration has made clear that Russia’s response played no role in its decision to modify our missile defense structure.  As Secretary Gates stated, “This shift has even been distorted as some sort of concession to Russia, which has fiercely opposed the old plan.  Russia’s attitude and possible reaction played no part in my recommendation to the president on this issue.  Of course, considering Russia’s past hostility toward American missile defense in Europe, if Russia’s leaders embrace this plan, then that will be an unexpected – and welcome – change of policy on their part.”[33]

[1] Remarks by the President on Strengthening Missile Defense in Europe, 9/17/09.

[2] Department of Defense News Briefing with Secretary Gates and General Cartwright, 9/17/09.

[3] AFP, PN6M-oyM4LHiHTSK559kQA" target= "_blank">9/26/09; White House, Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy, 9/17/09.

[4] Robert Gates, New York Times op-ed, 9/19/09.

[5] White House, Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy, 9/17/09.

[6] White House, Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy, 9/17/09; Department of Defense News Briefing with Secretary Gates and General Cartwright, 9/17/09.

[7] Robert Gates, New York Times op-ed, 9/19/09; White House, Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy, 9/17/09.

[8] Opening Statement of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Under Secretary for Defense Policy, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, 9/24/09; Department of Defense News Briefing with Secretary Gates and General Cartwright, 9/17/09.

[9] White House, Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy, 9/17/09.

[10] White House, Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy, 9/17/09; Department of Defense News Briefing with Secretary Gates and General Cartwright, 9/17/09.

[11] Opening Statement of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Under Secretary for Defense Policy, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, 9/24/09.

[12] Robert Gates, New York Times op-ed, 9/19/09.

[13] General James Jones, Letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, 9/18/09.

[14] Opening Statement of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Under Secretary for Defense Policy, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, 9/24/09.

[15] Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/24/09‘; Opening Statement of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Under Secretary for Defense Policy, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, 9/24/09.

[16] Opening Statement of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Under Secretary for Defense Policy, Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, 9/24/09.

[17] Wall Street Journal, 9/18/09; BBC, 9/18/09; Time, 9/17/09.

[18] Remarks by the President on Strengthening Missile Defense in Europe, 9/17/09; Lt. General Patrick O’Reilly, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/24/09.

[19] Secretary Gates, Press Briefing on the Defense Budget, 4/6/09.

[20] Senator Sessions, Floor Statement, 10/1/09.

[21] Robert Gates, New York Times op-ed, 9/19/09.

[22] General O’Reilly, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/24/09.

[23] Robert Gates, New York Times op-ed, 9/19/09.

[24] Senator Inhofe, 10/1/09.

[25] General O’Reilly, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/24/09.

[26] Secretary Flournoy, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/24/09.

[27] Senator Graham, Press Release, 9/17/09.

[28] Under Secretary Flournoy, Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, 9/24/09; General James Jones, Letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, 9/18/09.

[29] Senator McCain, Press Release, 9/17/09.

[30] Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, 9/24/09.

[31] Secretary Flournoy, Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 9/24/09.

[32] Senator Vitter, Press Release, 9/17/09.

[33] Robert Gates, New York Times op-ed, 9/19/09.