U.S. gears for high-stakes missile defense test

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is preparing for its first test of a sea-based defense 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 U.S. forces deployed against the perceived Iranian threat.

The last two intercept tests of a separate ground-based missile defense, aimed at protecting U.S. 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 Defense Agency.

Previous such sea-based drills have been against shorter-range targets. Intermediate range is defined as 3,000 to 5,500 kilometers (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 in an emailed reply to queries from Reuters.

The layered, multibillion-dollar anti-missile effort also focuses on North Korea’s growing arsenal of missiles that, 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 defense) will demonstrate for the first time its capability to negate the longer-range threats that must be countered in Phase 1” of the U.S.-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 Defense 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.

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 Aegis technology to better match its Iran expectations.

On March 7, the Obama administration began deploying its so-called “Phased Adaptive Approach” to missile defense 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 a powerful Raytheon X-band radar station 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 center, just as is planned for Europe, Army Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, the Missile Defense Agency chief, told the House of Representatives Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces 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 defense 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 U.S. intelligence community,” he said.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. gears for high-stakes missile defense test