US gears for high-stakes missile defence test

The test is to display "capability against a class of ballistic missiles".

Updated: Apr 08, 2011, 13:47 PM IST

Washington: The United States is preparing for its first test of a sea-based defence against longer-range missiles of a type that officials say could soon threaten Europe from Iran.

Much is riding on the event, including confidence in the Obama administration`s tight timeline for defending European allies and deployed US forces against the perceived Iranian threat.

The last two intercept tests of a separate US ground-based missile defence, aimed at protecting US soil, have failed.

The planned sea-based test this month will pit Lockheed Martin Co`s Aegis shipboard combat system and a Raytheon Co missile interceptor against their first intermediate-range ballistic missile target, said Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Pentagon`s Missile Defence Agency.

Previous such sea-based drills have been against shorter-range targets. Intermediate range is defined as 3,000 to 5,500 kilometres (2,000-3,500 miles) -- a distance that would put London, Paris and Berlin within range of Iran`s westernmost soil.

The coming test, dubbed FTM-15, is "to demonstrate a capability against a class of ballistic missiles, and is not country-specific”, Lehner said.

The layered, multibillion-dollar US anti-missile effort also focuses on North Korea`s growing arsenal of missiles, which, like Iran`s, could perhaps be tipped with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.

The "window" for the Aegis shootdown attempt runs to April 30, Lehner said. He said the Aegis-equipped ship used in the test will be in the south central Pacific and the ballistic missile target will be launched from Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific.

"During FTM-15, Aegis BMD (ballistic missile defence) will demonstrate for the first time its capability to negate the longer-range threats that must be countered in Phase 1" of the US-planned bulwark for Europe, J Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon`s top weapons tester, said in congressional testimony last month.

Riki Ellison, head of the Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, a private booster group, described the test as a "proof of concept" for the Obama administration.

"It is tremendously important that it`s a success as this exact architecture is to be deployed in Europe by the end of this year in the first phase of Obama`s plan," he said.

The United States expects to meet its goal of putting an initial missile defence capability in Europe by the end of this year even though efforts to find a host nation for a powerful Raytheon-built radar station are still under way, Brad Roberts, a deputy assistant secretary of defence, told the House of Representatives Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces on March 31.

Obama in 2009 scrapped a George W Bush-era plan to build a European version, in the Czech Republic and Poland, of the ground-based shield already deployed in California and Alaska. Instead, his Pentagon turned to the more flexible Aegis technology to better match its Iran expectations.

On March 07, the Obama administration began deploying its so-called "Phased Adaptive Approach" to missile defence in Europe by sending the Aegis cruiser Monterey into the Mediterranean. The ship carries SM-3 Block 1A interceptors.

As part of the Pentagon`s plan, the United States is seeking a southeastern European country to host the Raytheon X-band radar that would hand off data to the Aegis ships -- a concept dubbed "launch on remote."In the coming test, the interceptor missile will be cued by such an AN/TPY-2 radar unit, fed through a battle management centre, just as is planned for Europe, Army Lieutenant General Patrick O`Reilly, the Missile Defence Agency chief, told the Strategic Forces subcommittee on March 31.

"The USS Monterey is at sea today and, when paired with the AN/TPY-2 radar, will provide initial BMD protection of southern Europe from existing SRBM, MRBM and IRBM threats," he said, abbreviating for short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Greg Thielmann, a missile defence expert at the private Arms Control Association, discounted the likelihood of a near-term Iranian intermediate-range missile threat.

"Any suggestion that a threat to the heart of Europe looms in the next couple of years does not seem consistent with public statements from the US intelligence community," he said.

Bureau Report