Ukraine Refocuses Debate on US Missile Defense

Tensions in Ukraine have forced the U.S. to revisit its missile defense policy. (U.S. Navy photo)

Tensions with Russia over Ukraine have led lawmakers and former military leaders to suggest the Obama administration take a tougher defensive posture toward Russia and revisit previous U.S. plans to build land-based missile defense technology in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"There are military options that don't involve putting troops on the ground in Crimea. We could go back and reinstate the ballistic missile defense program that was taken out. It was originally going to go in Poland and Czech Republic. Obama took it out to appease Putin," former Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation program.

The prior plan he mentioned involved constructing missile silos in Poland with Ground Based Interceptors, or GBIs, and radar in the Czech Republic. It was implemented and begun when Cheney was in office as vice president during the George W. Bush administration.

While development of the missile silos in Poland had already begun, this plan was canceled in 2009 when the Obama administration reset relations with Russia. Russia had been strongly opposed to the construction of any kind of missile defense technology close to its borders.

Resetting relations with Russia paved the way for the Obama administration to broker the New START Treaty in 2010 -- a U.S.-Russian bilateral agreement to limit ICBMs, launchers and warheads.

Also speaking on CBS' Face the Nation, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., questioned the Russian reset policy and said the current administration should revisit missile defense in light of the problems in Ukraine.

"I think we should definitely revisit missile defense. I think if President Obama himself revisited missile defense that would be a very strong signal. I think you could charitably describe the reset policy as naive wishful thinking," he said.

In place of the Ground Based Interceptor site in Poland, the Obama administration chose to implement what's called the European Phased Adaptive Approach -- an effort to use ship-based Aegis radar and Standard Missile-3 technology to provide a protective envelope for missile defense.

Known as Aegis Ashore, the plan calls for land-based missile defense sites in Romania by 2015 and Poland by 2018, said Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.

Lehner did not comment on various opinions about restarting land-based European GBI development, but did say the Pentagon's Aegis Ashore effort was progressing. Development of the Aegis Ashore site in Romania is already underway, he said.

"The program of record is Aegis Ashore in Romania and Poland. It will be operational by the end of 2015," he explained. "We will have our first Aegis Ashore flight test from Hawaii in the next three to four months."

The Romanian Aegis Ashore site will be configured to fire the SM-3 IB interceptor missile, Lehner said. However, the Polish site for 2018 will be able to fire the larger, more powerful SM-3 IIA missile, which has a longer range, he added.

Unlike the SM-3 weapon, land-based GBIs like those previously planned for Poland are designed to knock ICBMs out of the sky during the midcourse phase of flight when the incoming missile is in space.

"The GBIs are primarily designed against the type of ICBMs that could be developed by North Korea and Iran -- and the Aegis Ashore technology is designed for use against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles," Lehner said.

Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, or BMD, has historically been a ship-based integrated missile defense system that uses radar to identify approaching targets in tandem with SM-3 interceptor missiles engineered to knock them out of the sky.

In existence since 2004, Aegis BMD is now operating on 28 Navy ships and with a number of allied nations. U.S. allies with Aegis capability include the Japan Self Defense Forces, Spanish Navy, the South Korean Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, Italy, Denmark and others, MDA officials said.

The system uses the AN/SPY-1 radar, multiple variants of SM-3 missiles and various software configurations to ensure targets are located, tracked and destroyed.

SM-3 missile technology is capable of what's called mid-course phase missile defense. However, it's only effective against short- to intermediate-range missile threats. Ground Based Interceptors, by contrast, are able to provide full mid-course defense against high-flying, fast-moving ICBMs.

"A GBI can go and hit something that is way out there. It is an extremely big and extremely fast warhead. The standard missile is based on an anti-aircraft missile. It is a relatively small missile," said Daniel Goure, vice-president of the Lexington Institute, a Va.-based think tank.

Goure said ICBMs can travel as fast as 17,000 miles an hour.

There appear to have been many factors informing the decision to abandon the land-based GBI site in Poland, Goure said.

Signing the New START Treaty, improving relations with Russia and accommodating their concerns about missile defense technology appear to have been a large part of the strategic calculus.

At the same time, the administration seems to believe that the Aegis Ashore system will be sufficient to meet regional threats. The decision seems to have, in part, been based on the belief that Iran was not likely to possess an ICBM in the near future, Goure said.

"The Obama administration rejected the Bush administration's idea that you would need a GBI site in Europe to protect the U.S. coastline," Goure said.

Consequently, the thinking with the European Phased Adaptive Approach seems to be that Aegis Ashore will succeed in defending Europe and the Middle Eastern partners, and the continental U.S. will be protected from threats by the GBIs the U.S. currently has at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

In fact, last year the Pentagon announced it would be increasing the number of GBIs from 30 to 44 at those locations in an effort to strengthen missile defense.

Another missile defense related option might be for the U.S. to restart research and development of the SM-3 IIB program, an effort designed to engineer a standard missile that is capable of destroying ICBMs, Goure said.

"There was going to be a version of the standard missile, the Aegis SM-3 IIB, that was going to be ICBM capable, and in a gesture to Putin that was canceled. The Russians have been opposed to any deployment of missile defense in Europe," he said.

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at

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