Senator Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) defense aide(s) appear to have some explaining to do.
At a June 15 Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 defense budget, Sen. Shelby alleged that an ongoing Defense Science Board report concludes that the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) “plans to achieve an early intercept capability as part of the phase-adaptive approach are simply not credible.”
The Defense Science Board is now completing a review on Science and Technology Issues of Early Intercept (EI) Ballistic Missile Defense Feasibility as a concept to enhance missile defense. Early intercept refers to hitting a ballistic missile before it releases its payload. Boost phase intercept refers to hitting a missile soon after it is launched while its boosters are burning.
The fourth phase of the phased adaptive approach is slated to have an early intercept capability against limited ICBM threats such as those posed by Iran.
According to Shelby the Defense Science Board report “is disturbing…since the MDA’s promise [sic] to develop by 2020 an early intercept capability for the SM-3 Block IIB was the central justification…to cancel the third site in Europe and to kill the KEI boost phase defense program. Now it looks like the nation may be left…with an inadequate defense in Europe and no boost phase intercept capability.”
Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz pointed to Sen. Shelby’s disclosure of the report to question the Obama administration’s competence on missile defense policy – something he has done with increasing regularity as of late.
Shelby and Gertz have their facts mixed up. In a July 6 letter to the Washington Times, report co-chairman Admiral William Fallon, report co-chairman and Defense Science Board vice chairman General Lester Lyles, and Defense Science Board chairman Paul Kaminski stated that the Defense Science Board did not conclude that the phased adaptive approach or the SM-3 family of interceptors were flawed.
Either Sen. Shelby and his staff misunderstood the contents of the report, or they deliberately twisted it in an effort to score political points…
UPDATE 1/25/2012: Turns out I may have been too harsh on Sen. Shelby. Having read the Defense Science Board’s final report, there are some real questions about the credibility of early intercept in defeating enemy missiles before they release decoys or countermeasures, though the report claims that the success of the phased adaptive approach in defending Europe and the benefits to homeland defense provided by interceptors forward deployed in Europe hinges less on the success of EI per se and more on critical enablers such as fast interceptors and the ability to discriminate. For more see here. I still think Sen. Shelby is wrong about the rationale for the cancellation of the Bush administration’s plans for missile defense in Europe.
Senator Shelby’s assessment of the Defense Science Board report seemed suspicious even before Fallon, Lyles, and Kaminski weighed in to set the record straight. For example, Sen. Shelby conflated the concept of early intercept with boost phase missile defense. As noted above, they’re not the same thing.
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen noted at the hearing, “the whole issue of boost-phase intercept is an extraordinarily difficult technical challenge. And at least if someone’s broken through on that, I haven’t seen that.”
In theory, early intercept is easier than boost phase missile defense because there is more time to engage an enemy ballistic missile.
Moreover, Shelby’s claim that the development of an early intercept capability for the fourth phase of the phased adaptive report was the central rationale for abandoning the third site in Europe does not stand up to close scrutiny.
In reality, the main justification for the phased adaptive approach is that it shifted the focus of U.S. missile defense efforts in Europe away from the threat posed by Iranian long-range ballistic missiles (which do not exist) to the threat posed by Iranian short and medium range ballistic missiles (of which there are many).
And as former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates reminded the Subcommittee, “let’s be blunt: The third site in Europe was not going to happen, because the Czech government wouldn’t approve the radar.”
The Fallon, Lyles, and Kaminski letter reveals that Shelby and Gertz utterly misconstrued the contents of the Defense Science Board report. According to the letter:
In previous work, the DSB [Defense Science Board] found the EI concept helpful in national missile defense against long-range ballistic missiles. In the current review, EI, as defined by the study’s terms of reference, was judged less helpful in regional missile defense against shorter range regional ballistic missiles. Bill Gertz’s report took the DSB conclusions out of context.”
The fact that this form of EI is not viable in shorter-range regional applications does not imply that either SM-3 family interceptors or the EPAA concept are flawed. In general, EI, including intercepts of longer- range missiles before the threat missile reaches apogee, can provide for multiple engagement opportunities and more effective defenses.
MDA is on the right track in pursuing this capability for national missile defense, and examining the potential application in regional defense as a function of the range of threat missiles.
While the jury is still out on whether the phased adaptive approach can provide an effective capability against long-range (or even shorter-range) missiles, it’s clear that the Defense Science Board did not conclude what Sen. Shelby and Gertz claimed.