Web posted Sunday, February 25, 2007
On the front line: Alaska’s role grows in nation’s missile defense system
By Tim Bradner
Alaska Journal of Commerce
|Alaska’s role grows in nation’s missile defense system
| The sea-based X-Band radar sails into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, aboard the MV Blue Marlin, in January 2006. The 280-foot tall sea-based X-band radar, to be used as part of the missile defense program, has arrived in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. AP FILE PHOTO/Ronen Zilberman
JUNEAU — Here’s a chilling thought: Iran may have an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States in nine years.Rogue nations like Iran and North Korea, and other countries as well, are much further along in ballistic missile development than many Americans believe, the chief of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency told a state legislative committee in Juneau.
On average, 90 ballistic missile tests per year are carried out by foreign nations, and last year 100 tests were done, Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, told the Legislature’ s Joint Armed Services Committee Feb. 14.
China’s test of an anti-satellite weapon in January was another wake-up call for Western nations to the increasing technological capabilities of the emerging superpower.
Obering said what particularly worries the United States is that Iran and North Korea have shown no restraint in selling or sharing their technology. In its recent war with Israel, Hezbollah, based in Lebanon and supported by Iran, launched more than 4,500 missiles supplied by Iran against civilian targets in Israel.
The United States is racing to keep ahead of the threat with its development of a layered missile defense system that combines short-, medium- and long-range interceptors. The program is much further along and is demonstrating more success than many Americans understand, Obering said.
Since 2001 there have been 24 missile intercepts in low- and high-altitude tests, including one successful intercept in space with a long-range interceptor in September 2006. Fourteen out of 15 flight tests of interceptors have also been successful, and the one failure, of a sea-based launch in December, was caused by human error, not problems with the technology, Obering said. “It is actually a good sign when you reach the point where the errors are by the operators, not the technology,” Obering told the legislative committee in Juneau.
Alaska plays a key role in the nation’s missile defense. The bulk of the nation’s missile interceptors are now in launch silos at Fort Greely, near Delta, and new interceptors continue to be installed, Obering said.
The huge, seagoing X-Band radar facility, home-ported at Adak, in the Aleutian Islands, is now on station in the North Pacific, he said. Obering said this radar is so powerful that if it were located in Chesapeake Bay, it could track an object the size of a baseball over San Francisco.
In addition, the Kodiak Launch Facility, operated by the Alaska Aerospace Development Corp., a state corporation, is regularly used in ongoing tests of the missile interceptors.
Performance of Alaska labor and contractors, often working in difficult weather, far exceeded the MDA’s expectations, Obering said. About $625 million was invested in missile defense capabilities between 2000 and 2006, and the Fort Greely interceptor facility now employs about 360 full-time workers, he said.
The Alaska facilities, which include the Cobra Dane X-Band radar, are tied into a network of radar facilities in Japan and sea-based radar and tracking equipment on Aegis cruiser and destroyer ships stationed near Japan. The vessels are also equipped with short-range interceptors.
Obering said other missile-defense systems are being developed, including an airborne laser that will be flight-tested in 2009, as well as interceptors with multiple-kill vehicles to take out decoys, and satellites with sensitive sensors capable of detecting launches anywhere in the world.
The first of the new tracking satellites will be launched this December. The multiple-kill interceptor is due to be tested in 2013. Obering said the United States will defend itself with these systems and make them available to allies.
The nations that concern the United States most, in the near-term, are North Korea and Iran, two nations that also have active nuclear programs, Obering said. Iran is well along in testing of its intermediate- range Shahab-3 missile which could reach Israel, and advanced versions of this could reach central Europe.
Iran is also working on a space program, Obering said, and a successful launch of a satellite into orbit will also give it an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. “It is the consensus of the intelligence community that Iran will have a long-range weapon by 2015 that is capable of reaching the U.S.,” Obering told the legislative committee.
Alaskans are more familiar with the missile threat from North Korea because the Taepo Dong-2 missile that is under development would be able to reach Alaska and Hawaii. The missile failed on its first test launch last July, but North Korea continues work on it.
Obering said flight tests in 1998 of the Taepo Dong-1, an earlier version, saw a failure of the third stage, but the successful separation of the first and second stages, “demonstrated that the North Koreans have mastered several key technologies required for an (intercontinental ballistic missile), including stage separation,” he said.
Western nations have underestimated the capabilities of North Korea. “A month before North Korea test-fired an intermediate- range No Dong missile into the North Pacific over Japan, the experts said they wouldn’t have that capability for another eight to 10 years. They did it the following month,” Obering said.
Obering said the initial plots of the No Dong’s flight trajectory showed it landing in Japan. Luckily the missile stayed on course and landed in the North Pacific as planned, but the test was still a wake-up call for Japan and the West.
The threat of North Korea’s medium-range missiles has prompted a close defense coordination between the United States and Japan. A forward-based missile-tracking X-Band radar system is now installed in northern Japan and is tied into a fleet of 16 Aegis destroyers and cruisers equipped with tracking equipment. Seven of these vessels are equipped with short-range interceptors. This fleet will shortly grow to 17 vessels engaged in tracking, with 10 equipped to launch interceptors.
Missile-tracking radar systems are now being installed in Europe, too. A facility in Flylingdales, U.K., is now in its final tests, and a similar radar in Thule, Greenland, will soon to tied into the network, Obering said. These radar systems are intended to detect missiles launched from the Middle East toward Europe and North America.
A missile interceptor installation to protect Europe and North America from missiles from the Middle East is also planned in eastern Europe, Obering said. Talks on possible sites are now underway with the Polish government. A forward-based radar installation to support the interceptor launch facility will also be built, possibly in the Czech Republic, he said.
Obering said several tests of the missile interceptors are planned in 2007, including two tests of long-range, ground-based interceptors, which will involve launches from Kodiak, in late spring and early fall.
Five tests involving short-range and medium-range intercepts are also planned this year, three of these from the Aegis vessels at sea.
Tim Bradner can be reached at tim.bradner@ alaskajournal. com.