The U.S. Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) missile shield may have raised some old, Cold War hackles, but the system is no threat to the Russians -- and they know it, according to a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency in Washington.
The small, 10-missile defense system is set for deployment in Poland within four years. Its primary purpose is to protect Europe from a new class of medium-range missiles being deployed by Iran, U.S. military officials insist.
“[The GBI shield] isn’t designed against any kind of Russian technology; it is strictly designed for Iranian missiles,” MDA spokesman Rick Lehner tells Newsmax. “It would be a tail chase and we could never intercept them -- the geometry isn't there.”
Despite the limited size and capabilities of the GBI shield, Russian saber rattling has only gotten louder. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ratcheted up threats to point nuclear-tipped missiles at Europe in retaliation for the GBI deployment.
Medvedev’s pointed jabs have officials in Washington scratching their heads. “We have met with the Russians many times, even had two Russian colonels watch a launch from our MDA headquarters in D.C.," Lehner tells Newsmax.
After the Russian missile experts watched a prototype GBI launched from Vandenberg Air Fore Base in California intercept a simulated Iranian threat they were “extensively briefed” about the capabilities of the exoatmospheric (outside the atmosphere) interceptor, Lehner says.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported earlier this week that the Russian military intends to aim long-range, nuclear-tipped versions of the Iskander-M ground attack missile, as well as R-500 cruise missiles, at the proposed GBI anti-missile launchers.
“The mobile launchers are capable of delivering a sudden strike, including nuclear warheads, at most of Poland even in standard configuration,” authoritative Russian military commentator Ilya Kramnik said.
Medvedev has said he would reconsider aiming the offensive missiles at Europe if President-elect Barack Obama agrees not to deploy GBI. On Friday, the Chinese news agency Xinhua in Moscow quoted an unnamed official on Obama’s transition team as saying Obama is open to negotiation on the issue.
The Obama transition team in Chicago did not respond to a Newsmax inquiry.
Whether GBI it is worth the projected $4.5 billion price tag is another issue Obama has said he wants to examine.
The interceptor system is technically incapable of knocking down any ICBMs launched from Russia against either Europe or the United States, the MDA says. It is only useful against ballistic missiles headed for Europe from the Middle East, according to Lehner.
The Pentagon is currently installing six GBI missiles at Fort Greely in Alaska, and four at Vandenberg AFB. The ground systems complement Aegis shipboard anti-missile systems and the THAAD (theater high-altitude area defense) mobile missile system, which is designed to defeat tactical and theater ballistic missiles at altitudes up to 150 kilometers in space.
Iran announced on Nov. 12 that it had test-fired a new medium-range ballistic missile known as Sajil, with a stated range of 2,000 kilometers.
The missile, a two-stage solid-fuel system, was launched from a site in western Iran toward a target 800 kilometers away, according to U.S. intelligence sources. Lehner says it is exactly the type of relatively unsophisticated, medium-range missile the GBI system is designed to defeat.
It is not designed to protect either Europe or the U.S. from ICBMs like the 6,500-mile Russian Topol-M. The Topol-M is capable of in-flight maneuvering that makes it immune to U.S. anti-missile systems, including the GBI system in place in Poland, Lehner acknowledges.
During Medvedev’s first state of the nation speech to the Russian Parliament 10 days ago, he said that Russia had canceled plans to take three nuclear-armed missile regiments out of service in a region to the west of Moscow, Novosti reported.
"We earlier planned to remove three missile regiments of a missile division deployed in Kozelsk [Kaluga Region] from combat duty and disband the division by 2010. I have made a decision to withdraw these plans," Novosti reported Medvedev as saying, noting that Russia had been “forced” to take this measure.
The regiments are armed with RS-18 Stiletto ICBMs, a modernized two-stage rocket with enhanced targeting capabilities. Although it is 30 years old, the Stiletto is still one of the most advanced ballistic missiles deployed by Russia.
The 105-ton Stiletto is capable of delivering either six warheads from a multiple delivery system, or a single warhead weighing as much as 9,260 pounds at intercontinental range.
“That is really big,” Lehner notes.
Last August, the U.S. and Poland signed a formal agreement on the deployment of 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, which followed the signing in July 8 by the U.S. and Czech foreign ministries to station a U.S. radar in the Czech Republic. As part of the deal, the U.S. agreed to deploy a U.S. Army-manned Patriot battery in Poland beginning in 2009. On Thursday, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Lee M. Packnett said the planned deployment was still scheduled to proceed.
Exactly what purpose the short-range missile battery will serve in Poland is outside the understanding the MDA. One Patriot battery doesn’t have nearly enough missiles to protect the 10 anti-missile interceptors from ground-launched attack missiles the Russians say they will use to target the GBI’s underground launch facility, Lehner says.
“The State Department decided that,” he says. “It is a numbers game. Launch enough missiles and they will overwhelm the Patriot battery. We weren’t involved in that decision. MDA released Patriots to the Army five years ago.”
What MDA does know for sure is that GBI can defeat current and future Iranian threats, Lehner says.
“The missile is designed to collide with a target in space.” says Lehner. “It is a bullet that can hit a spot on another bullet. It works. We have had 36 out of 45 hit-to-kill intercepts since 2001, and that is very impressive.”
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