WASHINGTON -- The head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency on Wednesday said that Aegis antimissile technology is being studied for use at a possible new missile-interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast.
“It’ll be … a capability that we examine in conjunction with examining the third site,” Vice Adm. James Syring said in response to a lawmaker question during a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing. He declined to offer further detail in a public setting.
Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) had asked whether the Pentagon antimissile agency was studying any “sea-based option” in its ongoing review into the merits and feasibility of establishing a third U.S. interceptor site for homeland long-range ballistic missile defense.
The Missile Defense Agency is in the middle of conducting a comprehensive study of possible areas at which to establish a possible third interceptor site on the East Coast at the direction of Congress. MDA officials expect to winnow down options and make a recommendation before the year is over regarding where a new interceptor site could be built, though no official decision to build the antimissile site has been made.
The two existing interceptor sites are on the West Coast. A main site at Fort Greely, Alaska, is populated by 26 long-range interceptors and another at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California has four similar interceptors.
Thus far, many have speculated that were an East Coast missile defense site to be built, it would involve silo-based Ground-based Interceptors, as is the case with the two existing West Coast locations. However, the long-range GBI missile has had a problematic testing track record and some Democrats continue to doubt the merits of expanding use of the technology.
The Aegis system -- which employs a variety of developed and developing Standard Missile 3 interceptors and could be based on land or at sea -- has had a more solid testing record.
Syring praised the technology to senators, saying it was a “fantastic system.”
“The Aegis system … has been extremely successful. The hit- to-kill technology and the hit-to-kill theory I think has been proven over and over again,” the vice admiral said.
A ground-based version of the Aegis system, known as Aegis Ashore, is planned for fielding in coming years in Romania and Poland as part of the U.S. contribution to NATO efforts to establish a ballistic missile shield to cover all of Europe.
The idea of deploying Aegis Ashore on the U.S. East Coast has been touted in the past by its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, and by some issue specialists.
Peter Huessy of the consulting firm Geostrategic Analysis, for one, said last month that he supports having a “mixed defense” for the East Coast that could involve Aegis Ashore, Aegis-equipped U.S missile destroyers deployed along the coast, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system and GBI missiles.
Huessy emphasized the importance of getting some kind of missile defense architecture quickly established for the East Coast to respond to a perceived future threat of Iran’s emerging ICBM program. The mix of antimissile technologies can be tinkered with down the road, he said.
A number of Republican lawmakers have cited Tehran’s growing long-range missile capabilities as the impetus for rushing establishment of the East Coast site. The Defense Department has said Iran could test-fire its first ICBM as early as 2015, if it is supplied with outside help.
The Aegis system was not originally designed to deal with ICBM threats but rather short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Still, the technology has proven more reliable in testing than the GMD system, which was designed to focus on neutralizing long-range threats launched by North Korea and Iran.
Past plans to develop an Aegis capability capable of countering ICBMs have been canceled. Still, Aegis and its current family of SM-3 interceptors could be strategically deployed to provide coverage to major East Coast cities, even though the technology cannot comprehensively protect the entire eastern half of the nation, said former MDA head Trey Obering. He spoke to Global Security Newswire last month.
“The net outcome is the Aegis system is reliable, and we count on it to protect our nation. The [GBI] ground missile defense system has not reached -- not produced that level of confidence,” Subcommittee Chairman Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said at the hearing.