US shifts missile defense from Europe to Navy ships

A sea-based defense offers more flexibility against changing threats, including from Iran, Pentagon officials say. It also avoids a debate with Eastern Europe.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters
Marine Corps General James Cartwright (right), vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks during a joint news briefing with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Pentagon in Washington on Thursday.
Baz Ratner / Reuters
The USS Higgins is docked in the northern Israeli city of Haifa September 6. The destroyer is one of 18 American ships deployed globally with Aegis interceptor systems capable of blowing up ballistic missiles above the atmosphere.

President Obama will pursue a ship-based missile defense system as an interim measure to protect Israel and Europe from a short-range Iranian missile threat, as he backs away from a controversial ballistic missile defense system favored by the Bush administration.

Putting a missile defense system on water instead of on land will skirt some of the political backlash in Europe against the ground-based system. It will also address the more pressing threat of shorter-range missiles from Iran, military officials said at the Pentagon Thursday.

For years, the Navy has been developing the Aegis missile defense system – named after the shield of Zeus – as a way to protect aircraft carrier battle groups steaming vulnerably across oceans around the globe. Known as a "phased array" radar, it can look up and over the horizon as far as 250 nautical miles, says a Navy official [Editor's note: The original misstated the wrong number of nautical miles.].

If it picks up something like a missile, the ship can launch a standard missile armed with a transponder in its tail. The transponder allows the ship's system to steer the missile to the target to destroy it. The Navy has also modified 18 of its DDG-51 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers and Ticonderoga Class Cruisers with an advanced standard missile known as the SM-3 that is capable of countering the longer ranges of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The Pentagon said Thursday it will deploy the Aegis ship-based system by 2011, likely on as many as three ships, in place of the European missile defense system the Bush administration had envisioned, said Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Pentagon briefing Thursday.

The ship-based system would also give the US greater flexibility to adapt the system and move it around as needed. But the system can also carry more than 100 interceptors, meaning it can intercept many more missiles that could be hurled at a target than could the ground-based system.

"So this is a substantial addressal of the proliferation of the threat that we're seeing emerge," General Cartwright said.

Also, there is the advantage of deploying a system without diving into the kinds of political deliberations the US encountered in Europe as it sought agreement to deploy the original system.

"Once you're out in international waters, there is not a lot anyone can say about it," says Christopher Hellman, director of research at the National Priorities Project, an independent research organization that oversees federal spending, and an expert in defense systems, who applauds the shift.

Mr. Hellman likened the move to a more adaptable missile defense system to a change in the early 1990s, when the US shifted focus from the space-based "star wars" system to the ground-based Patriot missile defense system that countered actual threats over notional ones from cold-war adversaries.

Under the Obama plan, by 2015 the US would deploy a "more capable version" of a system that could be both ship- and land-based, allowing the US to expand the protected area. Ultimately, the US would develop and deploy other systems to counter the full spectrum of weapons, from short-range missiles to ICBMs.

Secretary Gates had previously endorsed the idea of a ballistic missile defense system in Europe, which would have placed 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and a radar sensor in the Czech Republic.

Recent intelligence suggests, however, that the threat from Iran is not from a long-range ballistic missile as much as from a short- to medium-range missile. That changed Gates's views about what kind of system should be built.

"I believe this new approach provides a better missile defense capability for our forces in Europe, for our European allies, and eventually for our homeland than the program I recommended almost three years ago," Gates said Thursday at the Pentagon.


Why Obama dropped missile shield

Administration cites technological advances and a shifting threat from Iran. But many in Eastern Europe worry the US is simply appeasing Russia.


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