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A ground-based interceptor missile shortly after liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base
Associated Press/Photo by Joe Davila/Missile Defense Agency
A ground-based interceptor missile shortly after liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base

Ballistic breakdown

Technology | The U.S. missile defense system may be inadequate against future foreign firepower

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

Is America adequately equipped to defend against advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles? No, says a panel of scientists and defense experts at the National Research Council, a group that advises the U.S. government on a variety of scientific issues. In a 260-page report released on the anniversary of 9/11, the panel called for a revamp of the “fragile” U.S. system of interceptors intended to destroy enemy warheads launched from nations thousands of miles away.

The United States has 30 ground-based interceptor missiles, ready to be fired at a moment’s notice from Fort Greely in Alaska or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. military is also building a missile defense network in Europe and on warships in the Mediterranean, intended to protect the United States and NATO allies from an Iranian missile threat. According to the plan, once radars and satellites detect an enemy missile, an interceptor will launch to meet it in the air and ram it.

The 30 domestic interceptors, deployed under President George W. Bush, were meant to guard against rudimentary ballistic missiles from nations like North Korea. The NRC panel, however, concluded the interceptors are inadequate to handle more sophisticated missile attacks “that can prudently be expected to emerge from North Korea or Iran over the coming decade or so.” Such missiles could reach the U.S. East Coast in 40 minutes, and might involve decoy warheads designed to throw off the antimissile system.

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To fix the problem, the panel recommended developing a faster interceptor model equipped with improved infrared sensors. It recommended adding a third antiballistic base in Maine or upstate New York, and adding new radars to five existing early-warning sites. To fund the revamp, the Obama administration could cancel a costly upgrade to the U.S. network of missile detection satellites and, in Europe, cancel the final phase of the antimissile buildup. Both measures would be unnecessary, the panel argued, if the other recommendations are implemented.

The Pentagon’s response was cold: Richard Lehner of the military’s Missile Defense Agency criticized the idea of a northeastern interceptor base, and said antiballistic missiles planned for the European sites by 2020 will be sufficient to counter an Iranian attack.

The report came at a sensitive time for U.S. relations with China and Russia. The United States recently announced plans to build a second antimissile radar in Japanese territory, ostensibly intended to monitor North Korea. Chinese officials, involved in a territorial dispute with Japan, suspect the U.S. presence in Asia is calculated to intimidate them.

Russia is perturbed by the United States’ European deployment. The country’s former missile chief announced in September that Russia would revive a missile defense system near Moscow and build an intercontinental missile with a 5-ton payload.

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Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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