As opposed to earlier plans to build ground-based components in Poland and the Czech Republic, the new sea-based approach is better suited to intelligence on Iranian threats and would provide protection sooner, the secretary said.
Going a step further, Gates — a former CIA director — said the new arrangement is preferable even if U.S. intelligence assessments that indicate Iran is more focused on developing short-range missiles over long-range capabilities prove incorrect.
“I probably am more familiar with the risks of over-reliance on intelligence than anybody, because I’ve seen how often it’s wrong,” he said. “If the intelligence is wrong, and the Iranians develop a capability sooner than the intelligence is saying, this architecture gives us a better chance of being able to cope with it than the [previous program], just because of the new technologies that are available that give us more flexibility.”
The defense secretary appeared before Pentagon reporters with his Czech counterpart, Martin Bartak, following a meeting that included discussion of the new missile defense system in Europe that President Barack Obama announced yesterday.
In December 2006, Gates recommended to then-President George W. Bush that the United States should put advanced radars in the Czech Republic and 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland. That was when intelligence officials gauged the development of Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile as the foremost threat to the United States and its allies.
Now, intelligence reports paint a different picture – that the country is moving faster to develop its shorter-range missiles.
“The original program that I recommended would have had no capability against short- and medium-range missiles until probably 2018,” Gates said today. “What the new system provides is some capability beginning in 2011 that will grow steadily each year in terms of its sophistication and its coverage of Europe. The next phase would begin in 2015.”
A drawback to the previous plan was that ground-based interceptors designed to deal with no more than five enemy missiles at once were prone to being overwhelmed by a larger salvo fired simultaneously, Gates said.
“What we have seen with the Iranians is that they’re producing and deploying significant numbers of short and intermediate missiles, and so [a salvo like that] could overwhelm even when the 10 interceptors were in place,” he said, though he added that research will continue on the ground-based system.
After much deliberation, Gates told reporters, his recommendation to Obama was to begin phasing in a missile defense system that puts radars and missiles in place sooner that are more suited to protect against the current threat. Plans are then to continue building on the system to increase its range of defense capabilities.
Deploying the Navy’s ships equipped with the Aegis weapons system to the region by 2011 drives the new plan’s initial phase. Their Standard Missile 3 interceptor has passed several tests in the past two years, and forward-position Army radar systems will support them.
This will give the military a smaller range of detection and protection, but is enough initially to protect U.S. troops and allies against Iran’s shorter-range missiles, officials said.