Recently, the Pentagon announced that four of five sites that had been identified as candidates for a possible new missile defense site would be moving on to the next step and getting Environmental Impact Statements (EIS)– Camp Ravenna, Ohio; Fort Custer, Michigan; Fort Drum, New York; and Portsmouth SERE Training Area, near Rangeley, Maine. Read More
February 19th, 2014
In January of 2013, the Air Force announced that it was conducting a “ground-based strategic deterrent analysis of alternatives,” which is military-speak for looking at options to replace the current silo-based, long-range Minuteman III missiles, which are armed with one to three nuclear warheads and deployed across the central plains of the United States.
The Air Force analysis has been subject to some ridicule, in particular because among the options considered are underground, rail-mobile approaches that were considering during the peak of the nuclear build-up in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan and rejected even then as too expensive.
As it turns out, even a direct replacement for the silo-based Minuteman would cost around $100 billion; the mobile approaches would be considerably more. That price is giving pause to even advocates for renewing the strategic triad of nuclear-armed submarines, missiles, and bombers.
Last week, I attended a conference of many self-proclaimed “die-hard Cold Warriors.” Speakers included Gen. Larry Welch, former head of Strategic Air Command (the predecessor of today’s Strategic Command), Johnny Foster, former head of Livermore national laboratory, and Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, who is responsible for the Air Force’s nuclear deterrence operations.
Given the speakers, what I discovered at the conference is somewhat surprising: the idea of replacing the Minuteman with a new missile is already widely dismissed as too expensive.
December 20th, 2013
The final defense authorization bill that passed the Senate late last night includes none of $140 million sought by the House to begin deployment of a new missile defense site that its supporters claim will better defend the eastern United States. The House demanded the Pentagon build a new site by 2018 and authorized $140 million to get started, though the Pentagon hasn’t even made a decision that a new site is desirable. This final outcome is very good news; if you’re just tuning in now, a new site on the East Coast is a poor use of resources and would improve neither the effectiveness nor the reliability of the Ground Based Midcourse (GMD) missile defense system. Read More
December 6th, 2013
While the world is focusing on negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, where do things stand on the other piece of the puzzle, the Iranian space-launch and missile program? Read More
November 7th, 2013
For the second year, missile defense supporters in the House of Representatives are seeking funding to build a new site for the U.S. Ground Based Midcourse (GMD) missile defense system. The aim is to place interceptors at a site near the east coast, in addition to the current sites in Alaska and California, to engage a potential future missile attack from Iran.
We just posted a short background paper that explains the problems with this plan. These include:
- the Pentagon has not asked for this money, nor has it made a decision that a new deployment site is desirable
- the Pentagon continues to struggle to get the basic GMD technology to work reliably, so it makes little sense to deploy it at another site
- even if these technical problems are surmounted, the system available now and in foreseeable future can at best only counter a rudimentary missile threat, one that is not accompanied by decoys and other countermeasures. Interceptors from Alaska could engage these missiles so an east coast site would not be needed.
- against this rudimentary threat, an east coast site would not improve effectiveness, but at most would improve efficiency, allowing the United States to potentially fire fewer interceptors at an incoming missile
- a new site would cost an estimated $3.6 billion to build and operate over the first five years, which makes little sense in the current budget-constrained environment.
September 30th, 2013
Last December UCS, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held a one-day workshop on the safety and security of U.S. nuclear weapons. About 20 people participated, including active and retired scientists and engineers from Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National labs; representatives from NNSA, DOD and the State Department; independent scientists who are members of the JASON group that advises the government on nuclear weapons and other security issues; and experts from academia and nongovernmental organizations. Read More
June 5th, 2013
April 29th, 2013
Last week, the Pentagon released an unclassified summary of its Annual Report on Military Power of Iran, dated January 13. Inside Defense wrote a story on it, “DOD: Iran, With Foreign Help, Could Demonstrate ICBM By 2015”. The story focuses on the report’s conclusion that
With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015.
This conclusion is only slightly modified from the April 2012 Report, a year ago, which concluded
With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.
This change seems intended to clarify its assessment since technically the term “intercontinental ballistic missile” means one with a range of more than 5,500 km, while Iran would need a missile with range of over 10,000 km to reach population centers in the U.S.
The article made something of the apparent contradiction of the DOD report with a December 2012 assessment of Iran’s ballistic missile program by Steven Hildreth for the Congressional Research Service. Hildreth writes:
It is increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015 for several reasons. Iran does not appear to be receiving the degree of foreign support many believe would be necessary, Iran has found it increasingly difficult to acquire certain critical components and materials because of sanctions, and Iran has not demonstrated the kind of flight-test program many view as necessary to produce an ICBM.
There is mounting evidence to suggest that, whereas the sanctions regime has not prevented Tehran from operating an increased number of centrifuges for uranium-enrichment activities or adding to its stockpile of fissile material, it has stymied efforts to develop and produce the long-range ballistic missiles capable of striking potential targets in western Europe and beyond.
Is this really a contradiction? While the Pentagon’s approach to assessing Iran’s ballistic missile program has changed over the years, the above Pentagon reports estimate the shortest timeline for Iran to acquire an ICBM capability, under the best conditions—in this case, with “sufficient foreign assistance.” What that assistance might consist of is not provided in the unclassified summaries. The CRS and IISS reports instead talk in specifics about what kind of foreign support Iran might actually be getting and how that might realistically affect its timeline.
To those accustomed to thinking in math terms, the Pentagon appears to be giving the “lower bound” of when Iran might achieve ICBM capability, not assessing the most likely value. That’s one useful piece of information, but not the whole picture.
April 4th, 2013
Since North Korea’s missiles are in the news and seem to be generating confusion, I’m giving here my understanding of where these various systems stand, based in part of my modeling of their capabilities. Read More
March 22nd, 2013
Thirty years ago tomorrow—March 23, 1983—President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech spawned an enthusiasm for missile defense that even today dominates defense discussions in Washington. Much has changed in those 30 years, so where are we? Read More