Ignore the largely speculative political reporting focused on Russian and Chinese sensitivities; it was technology that rendered obsolete the previous US government’s plans for a European missile defence shield. This is the most likely explanation for President Obama’s decision last month to cancel his predecessor’s ‘Star Wars Lite’ programme.
Debora Mackenzie writes in New Scientist that the system as envisaged would have provided little defence against threats from Iran and North Korea. These countries do not possess intermediate range rockets, let alone intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the interceptors planned for Poland would have been useless when it comes to taking out potentially hundreds of short and medium range missiles.
What Obama and his military planners are now working on now is an extension of the ship-borne Aegis Combat System, the mobile sensors of which are less vulnerable to attack than a land-based radar in the Czech Republic would have been. Aegis was designed in the early 1980s by Rear Admiral Wayne E Meyer, who died recently.
The new system has reportedly passed eight anti-missile tests since 2007, and the modified SM-3 anti-ballistic and anti-satellite missiles upon which it is based cost one seventh as much as the Bush administration’s favoured option. It would appear that President Obama’s government is sensible and thrifty, as well as technology-savvy and in possession of military nous.
Aegis in this new role is not without its critics, however. In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund argue that the system is designed to intercept missiles above the atmosphere, and, like current ground-based interceptors, is vulnerable to decoys and other countermeasures. What is needed is to prove Aegis under rigorous, real-world conditions.