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Explainer: What’s New In U.S. Missile-Defense Plans?

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from Meck Island on its way to an intercept of a ballistic missile target during the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s historic flight test in October 2012.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from Meck Island on its way to an intercept of a ballistic missile target during the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s historic flight test in October 2012.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced last week that Washington is restructuring its missile-defense plans to “stay ahead” of the challenges posed by both Iran and North Korea. What exactly has changed in Washington’s plans and what do these changes mean for relations with Russia and China?

What are the changes the United States is planning to its missile-defense program?

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on March 15 that Washington is restructuring its missile-defense plans in light of recent advances in missile technology by North Korea and bellicose statements coming from Pyongyang.

In particular, Washington will deploy an additional 14 long-range-missile interceptors to a base in Alaska by the end of 2017.

"We will strengthen homeland missile defense by deploying 14 additional ground-based interceptors -- GBIs -- at Fort Greely, Alaska," Hagel said. "That will increase the number of deployed ground-based interceptors from 30 to 44, including the four GBIs at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. These additional GBIs will provide a nearly 50 percent increase in our missile-defense capability."

The United States will also set up a second missile-tracking station in Japan. Washington already maintains a formidable sea-based missile-defense system around Japan and South Korea, and both countries host Patriot-3 antimissile batteries.

At the same time, Washington has suspended Phase 4 of its missile-defense program in Europe, which envisioned the deployment of advanced SM-3 Block IIB interceptors in Poland by 2022. Those highly advanced interceptors would theoretically be able to counter attacks from long-range missiles capable of striking the United States. They are also the interceptors whose deployment was most opposed by Russia.

Washington will proceed with Phase 2 of the European program -- the deployment of an Aegis antimissile station in Romania by 2015 -- and Phase 3, which includes missile interceptors and an advanced command-and-control center in Poland.

What are the threats from North Korea and Iran?

The United States says its missile-defense programs are intended to provide protection to the United States and its allies in the event of a nuclear-weapons strike from a rogue nation. Washington says the greatest threats currently come from North Korea and Iran.

"Today I'm announcing a series of steps the United States will take to stay ahead of the challenge posed by Iran and North Korea's development of longer-range ballistic missile capabilities," Hagel said on March 15.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear-weapons tests, the most recent in February. It is believed to have between six and 12 nuclear weapons. In December 2012, North Korea successfully used a three-stage rocket to place a satellite into orbit.

The country’s Taepodong-2 rocket could reach Alaska. Pyongyang is believed to be developing the technology to place a nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles. Hagel said on March 15 that Washington believes it could achieve this as early as 2017.

Iran denies it is attempting to build nuclear weapons, but the United States and others in the international community are urging Tehran to prove this by opening up its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iran is working on a long-range rocket program with the assistance of North Korea. There have also been reports that China and Russia have cooperated with Iran’s missile program over the years. Iran has successfully tested the solid-fuel Sehil two-stage, medium-range, nuclear-capable missile, with a range of around 2,000 kilometers. It has also developed the Shahab-3 medium-range, nuclear-capable, liquid-fueled missile, with a range of around 900 kilometers. Iranian missiles are capable of striking targets in NATO-members Turkey, Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania.

Will the changes in Europe satisfy Russia’s concerns about NATO missile defense?

Moscow has been restrained in its response to the U.S. announcement so far, saying it will wait until the completion of bilateral consultations in Geneva on March 18 and 19. However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told “Kommersant” that Moscow does not see the changes as a concession or response to Russian concerns. Moscow insists that it be included in any comprehensive European missile-defense program.

In addition, Ryabkov said the transfer of long-range-missile interceptors to Alaska does not allay Russia’s concerns that U.S. missile defense could compromise Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Outspoken Duma Deputy Aleksei Pushkov went further, telling “Vedomosti” that the move from Europe to Alaska “proves” that the U.S. missile-defense system is aimed at Russia and not at Iran.

A source within the Russian Defense Ministry told “Vedomosti” that the U.S. decision was based on budget considerations rather than respect for Moscow, and it could easily be reversed if the U.S. economic picture improves.

In deploying more missile-defense resources to Asia, Washington must now address concerns in Beijing that the system targets Chinese missiles. China’s Foreign Ministry criticized the planned deployments on March 18, saying that missile defense “matters to the global strategic balance and to regional stability” and affects “strategic trust among relevant countries.”

Does missile defense work?

At his March 15 press conference, Hagel expressed confidence that the Alaska-based interceptors would be able to cope with a possible missile attack from North Korea despite the system’s checkered history. He acknowledged there have been problems with the interceptors’ “gyro guidance system.”

In September 2012, the independent U.S.-based National Research Council criticized the system, saying it would provide “limited effectiveness” against a possible attack from Iran. The report said the United States was wrong in assuming that North Korea and Iran will not develop countermeasures such as decoys that could be used to overwhelm defenses.

The National Research Council report also urged the cancellation of Phase 4 of the European missile-defense program, arguing instead that an interceptor base on the U.S. east coast would be more effective.

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