APS News

Proposed European Missile Shield's Politics Overshadows Feasibility

Recent media coverage of the United States’ plan to install a missile defense shield in Europe has largely focused on the political implications of the shield, paying little attention to the technical difficulties it faces, experts say.

The 10 midcourse interceptor missiles the United States plans on installing in Poland are an unproven defense against a long-range ballistic missile attack, said Frederick K. Lamb, who co-chaired a 2003 APS study on boost-phase intercept systems for missile defense. The existing ground-based midcourse defense system has been tested fewer than a dozen times, scoring six intercepts out of 11 trials since October 1999.

“Not a single test of this system has ever been carried out under realistic combat conditions,” said Lamb.

The tests have been scripted scenarios performed under operationally unrealistic conditions, according to the Arms Control Association, a Washington, D.C., based nonpartisan membership organization that supports effective arms control policies. They have taken place at slower speeds and lower altitudes than would be expected in a real attack, and the intercepting missiles were preprogrammed with information on the target.

Russia has been the most outspoken opponent of the new $3.5 billion missile defense system, with President Vladimir Putin last week saying Russia will take “appropriate measures” to counter the system. Washington says the system is essential for protecting the United States and Europe from rogue states like Iran and North Korea. Putin said he believes the system will be used to track Russian military activities.

In July, when North Korea was conducting missile test launches, the missile defense system in Fort Greely, Alaska, was switched from testing status to operational status, suggesting the military’s confidence in the system.

“To advertise that this system is ready is misleading,” Lamb said. “This system has no demonstrated capability, period.”

–Turner Brinton, courtesy of Inside Science News Service