Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A missile defense shield designed to protect the United States and Europe from an Iranian missile attack faces major delays, cost overruns and critical technological problems, according to two recent government reports.
The reports by the Defense Department and congressional investigators cast doubt on a program that is at the core of American plans to defend Europe and a sensitive political issue both domestically and in relations with Russia. They say missile interceptors are running into production glitches, the systems' radars are underpowered and the sensors cannot distinguish between warheads and other objects.
The first report, by the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Defense Department, was released late last year but has received little notice. While it concludes there are "no fundamental roadblocks" to the European system, it points out major problems while not saying how they can be fixed. Board members declined repeated requests for comment. Outside experts, including the Pentagon's former chief weapons tester, Philip Coyle, say the issues raised in the report would require substantial, costly changes if they can all be surmounted at all.
The second, by Congress' nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, was released Friday.
Some Republicans have seized on the reports, saying they back their view that the program was hastily designed to ease the concerns of Russia, which had strongly objected to previous plans by the Bush administration, with less regard to whether it would actually work. Ahead of the November election, Republicans are casting Obama as a weak leader, quick to capitulate to the demands of other nations.
"There is a political timeline and agenda that doesn't meet a scientific, development and security timeline," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of a panel that oversees missile defense. "It does not appear that it can deliver the protection for U.S. homeland that this administration promised."
The administration insists the plans are on track.
Missile defense in Europe has been a nettlesome issue since the middle of last decade when President George W. Bush announced plans to base long-range interceptors in central Europe as a defense against missiles from Iran. That infuriated Russia, which believed the program was really intended to counter its intercontinental ballistic missiles and undermine its nuclear deterrent. Some Democrats also objected, complaining the U.S. was gambling billions of dollars on questionable technology.
Soon after Obama took office in 2009, he revamped the program as he looked to improve relations with Moscow. His plans called for slower interceptors that could address Iran's medium-range missiles. The interceptors would be gradually upgraded over four phases, culminating in 2020 with newer versions that are still in development that the administration says will can protect both Europe and the United States. The early phases call for using Aegis radars on ships and a more powerful radar based in Turkey. Later phases call for moving Aegis radars to Romania and Poland.
The plans have gained momentum in Europe with the signing of basing agreements in Poland, Romania and Turkey, as well as backing by NATO.
Obama claims his system would be more reliable than what had been planned by Bush because the new plan was based on tested technology.
"We have made specific and proven advances in our missile defense technology," Obama said at the time. "Our new approach will, therefore, deploy technologies that are proven and cost-effective and that counter the current threat, and do so sooner than the previous program."
But the two reports cast doubt on the technology and Obama's timetable.
The Defense Science Board report found that the ship-based Aegis radars would have too short a range to provide enough time for the ship's interceptors to hit the target, a capability it says is essential for coverage for Europe. .
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