Doubt cast on missile shield plans

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 7:24 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Secret Defense Department studies have raised concerns about a multibillion-dollar missile defense system planned for Europe, congressional investigators told The Associated Press.

Military officials said they believe they can overcome the concerns, including whether the system can protect the United States from Iranian missiles, and are advancing with plans.

Proposed fixes could prove difficult. One possibility has been ruled out as technically unfeasible. A second, relocating missile interceptors planned for Poland and possibly Romania to ships on the North Sea, could be diplomatically troublesome.

The studies are the latest to highlight serious problems for a plan that has been criticized on several fronts.

Republicans have claimed it was developed hastily in an attempt to appease Russia, which had opposed an earlier system. But Russia is critical of the plan, which it believes is really intended to counter its missiles.

A series of governmental and scientific reports has raised questions about whether it would ever work as planned.

As the military faces giant budget cuts, the studies could lead Congress to reconsider whether it is worthwhile to spend billions for a system that might not fulfill its goals.

The classified studies were summarized in a briefing for lawmakers by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' nonpartisan investigative and auditing arm, which is preparing a report. The GAO briefing, which was not classified, was obtained by the AP.

The GAO study was requested by Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, who until recently led a panel that oversees missile defense. He said he is concerned that the interceptor might be useless in protecting the United States.

“This report really confirms what I have said all along: that this was a hurried proposal by the president,” Turner said.

Military officials declined requests to discuss the studies on the record, noting that they were classified. Even speaking on condition of anonymity, officials declined to say whether the GAO accurately reported its conclusions.

Still in development

The officials emphasized that the interceptor intended to protect the United States is in the early stages of development and its capabilities are not known. They said the United States is protected by other missile defense systems.

Even if European-based interceptors are unable to directly defend the United States, they say, they would protect not only European allies and American troops stationed on the continent, but also U.S. radars there that are necessary for all missile defense plans.

Missile defense has been a contentious issue since President George W. Bush sought to base long-range interceptors in Central Europe to stop missiles from Iran.

Some Democrats criticized the plans, saying they were rushed and based on unproven technology. Russia believed the program was aimed at countering its missiles and undermining its nuclear deterrent.

It might seem logical for the United States to want to have a defense against Russian missiles, but it's not that simple.

A new missile defense system aimed at Russia could undermine the balance between the nuclear powers, leading Moscow to add to its arsenal and build its defenses.

President Obama reworked the plans soon after taking office in 2009, saying the threat from long-range Iranian missiles was years off.

His plans called for slower interceptors that could address Iran's medium-range missiles. The interceptors would be upgraded gradually over four phases, culminating early next decade with those intended to protect Europe and the United States.

Planned sites

The plans have gained momentum in Europe with the signing of basing agreements in Poland, Romania and Turkey, as well as backing by NATO.

The GAO investigators said the classified reports by the Missile Defense Agency concluded that Romania was a poor location for an interceptor to protect the United States. They said the Polish site would work only if the United States developed capabilities to launch interceptors while an Iranian missile was in its short initial phase of powered flight.

The Obama administration is not pursuing that capability because it does not believe it is feasible, according to one senior Defense official.

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