Obering Says Lithuanian Interceptors Site Could Be Effective; U.S. Focused On Obtaining Deal With Poland For Silos Site

By | June 23, 2008 | Satellite News Feed

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Shifting interceptors for a proposed European Missile Defense (EMD) system from Poland to Lithuania would leave them still able to take down incoming Iranian missiles, but the Lithuanian site wouldn’t be as good as a Polish base.

That was the assessment of Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering III, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), responding to a question from Space & Missile Defense Report during a breakfast forum of the National Defense University Foundation at the Capitol Hill Club.

However, a Pentagon spokesman said the United States must leave its options open, and shifting the interceptors site to Lithuania would be one possible move if a deal with the Poles doesn’t materialize in a reasonable time.

On other points, Obering said:

  • The MDA has experimented with a missile defense system mounted on an aircraft. It worked. But MDA will examine this potential system further before proposing it as a full- blown program to be funded in the annual MDA budget. An F-15 could be the plane serving as the platform for the interceptors.
  • MDA would like to establish a U.S.-European test bed in the Atlantic to conduct missile defense tests, so European partners don’t have to steam their ships halfway around the world to the Pacific test range to participate in joint tests with U.S. forces.
  • Links have been established between U.S. and NATO sensors, radars, so that European data shows up on screens in the United States, and U.S. data shows up on NATO screens in Europe.
  • MDA still is examining the structure of a contract with The Boeing Co. [BA] for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, part of the U.S. multi- layered missile shield. But clearly, it makes financial sense to leave the major part of the contract with Boeing, as was known earlier. A variant of the GMD system in Alaska and California would be used in the European Missile Defense system.
  • GMD guards against nuclear-tipped missiles from, say, North Korea. Separately, the United States discovered traces of highly enriched uranium among 18,000 pages of North Korean documents from the Yongbyong nuclear reactor, meaning North Korea may have told untruths in claiming its only nuclear weapons program used plutonium exclusively, The Washington Post reported.
  • Iran may obtain intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities long before many experts expect. They see Iran gaining ICBMs in the middle of the next decade, but Obering warned that could happen much earlier.

Lithuanian Site

Negotiations with Polish leaders have dragged on for months. Poland would supply a site for EMD interceptors, the Czech Republic would supply the site for a high-capability radar to guide the interceptors toward incoming enemy missiles threatening Europe or the United States, and the United States in turn would provide military aid for those nations. But Polish and U.S. negotiators have failed to reach a deal.

The delay has dragged on so long that some U.S. officials are considering whether it might be better to abandon talks with Poland, and attempt to persuade Lithuania to supply the interceptors site instead.

Obering previously has described the Polish site as ideal for interceptors to take down Iranian missiles. He was asked to compare the Polish site with the suitability of a potential Lithuanian site.

Such a site "would still be effective to counter an Iranian threat," Obering said, but not as completely as the planned site in Poland. "It would not be as [good] as Poland. We chose Poland because it [would provide the optimum site.] What do I mean by optimum? If you look at this slide … now this shows only one launch point from Iran. But in fact, we took all the potential launch points … from Iran, to all the potential targets in the United States and into Europe, and that gave us a spread fan of those trajectories.

"And if you looked at what would be the location of countries that would give us the best coverage of those [trajectories] and what happens as you move [away from Poland] East and West, or North and South, you begin to lose coverage over that optimum, either from the United States or from Europe. It is not significant, in the case of Lithuania, but it is not the optimal. … There is some margin there."

When Obering was asked what the probability is that the interceptors site will shift to Lithuania, he discounted the possibility.

"First of all, we don’t have any discussions ongoing with Lithuania," he noted. "There’s no negotiations for that. Poland is still, as I mentioned, [the optimal site], and I’m encouraged recently on the discussions with the Poles. So I don’t think that we have to worry ourselves with that. I think that Poland is still our primary choice, and that’s where we’re focused."

Separately, Department of Defense Press Secretary Geoff Morrell downplayed chances of the possible shift, while saying that yes, the United States always has reserved the option of placing the EMD system somewhere other than Poland, such as in Lithuania.

He said during a Pentagon press briefing that ongoing talks for a system sited in the Czech Republic and Poland haven’t foundered, but rather are continuing.

"We are still in the process of working out sort of the finishing touches, I believe, on the [deal] with the Czech Republic that would allow our forces to operate at the radar site that we hope to build in the Czech Republic," Morrell said. "We believe we’ll finish those up soon and are on track for the U.S. and the Czech Republic to sign a missile defense agreement next month."

And, he added, "we continue to have serious negotiations with Poland."

Morrell noted that U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates met with his Polish counterpart in Brussels, and "they had a good discussion, and talks continue at lower levels as well. We are hopeful that we can soon reach a deal with the Poles."

However, Morrell added, "we have always said that there are other options available to us. There are several other European nations that could host the interceptors, and Lithuania is one of them."

He explained that "responsible planning requires us to look at backup options" in case talks with Poland don’t conclude well. "And so we have over the course of this effort always kept in mind that there may be the need to look for our — look to our second or perhaps third choice to host the interceptors," Morrell said.

But that doesn’t mean a shift to Lithuania is imminent, he indicated.

"That said, we have not entered into [even informal] negotiations with any other country and hope that that does not become necessary," hoping instead that negotiations with Polish leaders can be concluded successfully, he indicated.

Asked whether there is a deadline for concluding the talks with Poland, Morrell said, "I don’t know that we set a deadline for the Polish deal. I think as long as the discussions continue to go well, as they have, we are committed to them. And that remains the case. Yeah. So I wouldn’t say there’s a deadline, but obviously, the sooner the better. It seems as though the Czech Republic, although it will ultimately require ratification of their parliament, seems ready to proceed with missile defense for Europe, and we hope the Poles will be our partner as well in this effort."

While there may be no formal deadline for reaching a deal with the Poles, as a matter of reality, the Bush administration will last only until January, seven months from now. Asked if that reality factors into the situation, Morrell said, "Sure. Absolutely."

While he wouldn’t say that a deal must be reached by the end of summer, still, "clearly, time is of the essence. We want to get a deal done. We believe it is imperative, given the security threat that we believe is looming for Europe based upon Iranian — the Iranian missile threat, that we move on this as soon as possible. And that is why we continue to aggressively pursue talks with the Poles, but that is also why we do not close the door on perhaps having to pursue a backup option."

Morrell said there is no question that Poland is serious about wishing to host the U.S. missile defense interceptors. Rather, the only outstanding question is how much the United States is going to have to give Poland before it says yes.

"I think they want an agreement, but it’s a question of what price," Morrell said. "And that’s what a negotiation is all about, and that’s what we’re in the midst of right now."

There is little secret about what Poland is seeking from the Americans.

"They wish for a greater air defense," Morrell said. "They want to enhance their air defenses in light of the fact they believe they are taking on an increased risk by hosting this European missile defense system.

"And they are asking for a significantly — they’re asking for our assistance in significantly modernizing their air defenses. And so we’re in the midst of a conversation, a negotiation on trying to determine what is needed and what we can afford to do to get a deal done with the Poles."

He declined to say whether other nations have offered to host the EMD interceptors, in light of the protracted U.S.-Polish bartering.

Plane-Based BMD

Obering was enthusiastic in discussing a test involving missile interceptors that could be mounted on a plane.

He cautioned that this still is in initial stages, and isn’t yet a formal program.

"It is very early, first of all," he said.

Yet the plane-based system has been tested, successfully.

"We have actually conducted a flight test out in the desert," Obering related. "We took a fighter and we modified an air-to-air missile with the hit-to-kill technology. So we actually drove the modified missile right into a boosting target, a small boosting rocket, just to see if we actually [could] do it."

Beyond just seeing if the system could work, MDA wanted to check its various components, and how well they function, he said.

"We were actually effectively testing the seeker technology, as well as the propulsion technology, to be able to see if we could" have the system distinguish between the target missile and its exhaust plume.

An infrared seeker was able to discern the difference. "We were successful in doing that," Obering reported. "So that opens up a venue for the future that we would like to explore. But we do not have any robust program laid in for that right now. We are still early in the experimental development stage."

He later said there is no formal request to the administration and Congress to stand up this effort as a program with a full-blown budget, because first Obering wants to have it examined closely to ensure that it’s feasible, and examine specific components of the system.

"I’m very strong on these knowledge points," Obering said. "So we’re laying out the knowledge points, to see what can we do. And now, that was kind of a functional demonstration [in the recent test]. And now, what about, can you get an operationally effective range? Can we get the sensors – sensitivity that we need? The divert capability that we need? The propellant? ISP, or specific impulse that we need? All of those are coming up.

"So this is still what I call a technology program, kind of, that we’re laying in."

At this point, however, MDA leaders are keenly interested in pursuing the missile defense plane platform concept further.

"We are very, very interested in this," he said. "But it’s at the very early stages."

Asked whether the most likely platform for the airborne missile interceptors would be an F-15 strike fighter jet, Obering replied, "It could be. Certainly an F-15 could [do it]."

Asked whether an unmanned aircraft could be used here, Obering said that "we haven’t looked at that. I mean, I just don’t know."

As to whether an F-22 Raptor super-stealth, supersonic fighter could become the platform, Obering said that is unclear because it would depend upon the size of the plane-based interceptors.

For the Raptor to be used, the interceptors would have to be small enough to be carried inside the F-22, because mounting them outside would ruin its super-stealth radar- evading capabilities.

"We don’t know whether it could be internal carriage or not" on an F-22, he said. "If it can’t be internal carriage, it wouldn’t be any use … So that’s why we’re still looking at those" details, to see how they work, or don’t.

U.S.-European Test Area

Obering also described how U.S. and European missile defense sensor data are being linked, and how he wishes to see an area established for joint U.S.-European missile defense tests.

"We are very much interested in having and pursuing a test bed capability in the European theater," he said. "We have been in discussions with some countries there to be able to provide that.

"Because, it’s unfortunate that, for example, when the HMS Trump wanted to participate in our missile defense test … from the Netherlands, it had to circumnavigate the globe, almost, to get to Hawaii to participate in that. It would be nice if we could do something [in the European] region. So we do have some ideas that we’re [offering] around."

European areas and parts of the Atlantic could become test ranges, much as the United States operates in the Pacific.

"There are capabilities," Obering said. "There are launch facilities in Europe that could be used to launch either targets or interceptors. There are ranges [out in] the Atlantic that could be used. The United Kingdom and France and other countries are positioned to be able to do that. And that sets up a European test bed that we could have our European partners joining in it. … We set out … all along … [that] we plan to integrate our European capabilities with a NATO infrastructure, as that evolves."

Obering described a recent test, in which the United States and NATO successfully exchanged sensor data.

Overseas, the NATO air command and control system prototype in the Netherlands was used.

"Just a couple of weeks ago, we took that system and we took our command and control system in Colorado Springs, [Colo.]. We connected them, and we passed information in real time. Things like simulated radar track data, mission planning data … status data, over those lines.

"And you were able to demonstrate [it on a] NATO screen, and show our information on that screen. We put up on the U.S. screen [a display] that showed the NATO information on that screen. So, we’re well on our way to doing this integration of the kinetic control. So as NATO builds out the sensors and whatever interceptors that they end up choosing, we can take information and feed it into our system, and vice versa. And we think that would be very powerful integration."

Boeing And GMD

Turning his attention to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense contract with Boeing, Obering said circumstances have changed in nearly a decade since the contract was awarded, and MDA would like to see whether some part of the GMD program might be done more efficiently by another contractor, or whether the work should best be left with Boeing.

At this point, the answer is that for much of the program, no other contractor could possibly catch up with what Boeing has accomplished thus far, and thus the best deal for the government is to leave the contract with the Chicago-based company. However, as far as some smaller segments of the GMD program, MDA still is examining the issue.

It has been a while since that GMD contract was awarded, Obering noted.

"That contract goes back … to the late 1999-early 2000 time frame. Okay? And at that time, the program was experiencing a lot of changing and requirements. We had not gone through this new capabilities-based approach, etcetera. So they intentionally designed the contract to discourage changes, and to be very complex, but [not] to do any changes to the basic contract structure."

In one sense, perhaps that was well, because multitudinous contract requirements changes can cause enormous delays and cost overruns in procurement programs, as a general principle.

But in another sense, this wasn’t a well-considered move.

"That is actually not what you want to [do when] you’re dealing with evolving threats, technological changes … And that’s what we’re referring to with respect to the contract construct," Obering said.

And after a contract has been running for many years, it is intelligent to reconsider it, he said. "We constantly evaluate, are we getting the most money for the taxpayer, benefit," he said. "So we are looking at, here we had a Ground-based Midcourse program .. for eight … close to 10 years. Let’s take a look at that. Are there other contractors that could do that work more efficiently, more effectively? And so we broke that up … into different areas. Sustainment and maintenance. We looked at continuing development. We looked at testing, etcetera.

"And we did a cost-benefit analysis of each one of those areas to say, should we continue with Boeing, because we’re getting the most cost-effective solution? Otherwise, what would another offeror have to do to come up to speed at that level? Or are there things that we could … compete for the future and get some cost savings? And that’s what we did. We took a look at the core completion contract, [and] it turned out you’re not going to get another low-cost effective solution" from any other contractor that would equal, much less best, what Boeing already has done and is doing.

At the same time, he concluded, in "other areas, sustainment and others, we’re still looking" to see whether staying with Boeing would provide the best value.

Iran: A Treacherous Threat

Finally, Obering turned to the sole reason his agency exists: there is a palpable and rising missile threat facing the United States and its allies, and they must have an umbrella of protection in the face of this danger.

Gone are the days of the Cold War, when two immensely powerful but still rational antagonists confronted each other on the world stage, Obering said.

"That is not the situation that we’re in any more," he observed. "We are not in that Cold War era. We’re in an era in which increasing numbers of countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria … are gaining access to these technologies."

The mushrooming threat spans the globe, he said.

"And in the case of North Korea, they’ve expanded that to include long-range capabilities and nuclear weaponization. I believe other countries are [also moving that way]. And so as these threats emerge, it comes into question:

  • "Are these threats going to be … deterrable?
  • "Are they going to be rational?
  • "Are they going to be predictable?

"These are questions that you don’t want to have to rely on that adversary for your security."

Fortunately, the United States is far from being the only nation to apprehend this sinister development, and to be motivated to counter it, he said.

In Europe, where once there was uniform skepticism concerning U.S. missile defense plans, now there is endorsement, he said.

"The NATO vote in the ministerials coming out of the communiqu� in the summer was very telling," he said. "That described the fact that they recognized the emerging threat, that they needed to pay attention and do something about this. Other countries" outside of Europe also are clearly focused on the malevolent threat, he said. For example, "Japan is investing a considerable amount of money – billions," he observed.

And that is well, because the threat "is something that we cannot sit back and ignore. You know, a threat consists of two things, right? It consists of intent and capability. Intent can change overnight. You can have a country that’s your friend one day and your adversary the next, and vice versa. [But] capability takes a while to build. And that’s why we’re starting now for the European theater, because it’s going to be unpredictable."

While some analysts say the United States may have seven years or so before Iran develops an intercontinental ballistic missile, Obering isn’t prepared to bet heavily on that. Experts have been proven wrong before, he noted.

"When the North Koreans launched their Taepo Dong-1 [missile that arced over Japan and plunged into the sea], that first weapon in August of ’98, some of the experts believed it was going to be about eight-10 years before [North Korea] could ever do that. And they did it a month later," just after those predictions were made.

Obering fears that history may be about to repeat itself.

"Now the experts are saying the Iranians are going to have a long-range capability to threaten the United States in the middle of the next decade," he continued. "But it could be much sooner than that. And it takes us time [to build a missile defense shield]. If we get the Congress to fund the [EMD] site, hopefully … it’s going to take us ’til 2011, 2012, 2013, depending on where you started, to have an operational vehicle. And so it’s going to take us time to build this out. So we need to start now to be able to handle that threat."

The one thing Obering wishes to avoid is to find that Iran has developed longer-range missiles and nuclear weapons to mount on them, and the United States would be caught flat- footed with no system to defend Europe and the United States from Iranian nuclear blackmail.

"God forbid if we" find that nightmare has eventuated, he concluded, "and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’"

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