After two years of study, a panel of top scientists and military experts working for the National Research Council has concluded that the nation's protections against missile attacks suffer from major shortcomings, leaving the United States vulnerable to some kinds of long-range strikes.
In a report, the panel suggested that President Obama shift course by expanding a system he inherited from President George W. Bush and by setting aside the final part of an antimissile strategy he unveiled in 2009. In so doing, the panel said, the president could set up the nation's defenses to better defeat the kinds of long-range missiles that Iran may be developing.
It is the first time that the research council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has weighed in on the nation's overall plans for defeating missile attacks.
Chartered by Congress to give scientific and technical advice to the government, the council is considered to be the nation's preeminent group of scientists. The 16-person panel consists of scientists, engineers and weapons experts from universities, research groups and national laboratories, including one in Livermore, Calif., that deals with nuclear arms.
Philip E. Coyle III, a former national security official in the Obama White House and a former director of weapons testing at the Pentagon, said the panel's report exposed a system that should be rebuilt from top to bottom, adding that the antimissile complex was geared toward "producing and fielding hardware" rather than actually devising ways to deflect enemy attacks.
The Pentagon wrote off the report as pedestrian. Richard Lehner of the Missile Defense Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that erects the ground-based interceptors, called the panel's alarm bells about the system's limitations "an old story" and the need to focus more on enemy countermeasures unsurprising and "totally logical."
In its highly technical, 260-page report, the panel recommended an overhaul that would make the antimissile system "far more effective," including adding new sensors and interceptor rockets, as well as an additional base in Maine or upstate New York from which interceptors could be fired. The nation's two existing bases are in California and Alaska. The report called the plan affordable, saying it could fit within current antimissile spending -- which runs about $10 billion a year -- if the military eliminated what the panel described as costly and unneeded systems, like a $28 billion constellation of satellites meant to track enemy warheads.
The assessment is a major blow to Mr. Obama's strategy of playing down the long-range defenses he inherited from Mr. Bush and focusing instead on defenses in Europe against shorter-range Iranian missiles. He articulated the shift in September 2009, calling the envisioned system "stronger, smarter and swifter."
But the report, released Tuesday, faulted the results. It said the domestic defenses in place could probably handle crude missiles fired from North Korea, but nothing more sophisticated. It called the current generation of antimissile arms "fragile" and full of "shortcomings that limit their effectiveness against even modestly improved threats."
Mr. Obama's European shift is still a work in progress, and the report gave it conditional approval provided that the technical advances planned for the next six years, like improved sensors and interceptor rockets, actually materialize. But it recommended that the plan's final phase -- intended to protect the United States from long-range Iranian missiles -- be scrapped in favor of the stronger domestic system.
In short, the panel would undo part of Mr. Obama's shift and strengthen Mr. Bush's antimissile approach, creating more of a hybrid.
The report comes as worries rise over Iran's nuclear program and fears take hold that Tehran might one day decide to develop warheads for its rapidly growing fleet of missiles. Today, Iran's missiles are short and medium range. The report looks ahead a decade or more to what it calls the "likely development" of Iranian missiles designed to rain warheads down on the United States.
Since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan began the modern hunt for defenses against long-range missiles, Washington has spent more than $200 billion devising ways to hit incoming enemy warheads that move at speeds in excess of four miles per second. Critics have long faulted the goal as delusional, saying that any country smart enough to make intercontinental ballistic missiles could also make simple countermeasures sure to foil any defense.
In a nod to critics, the new report identifies enemy countermeasures as the main challenge for the domestic system, with many of its recommendations aimed at improving ways to distinguish between decoys and real warheads.
"For too long, the U.S. has been committed to expensive missile defense strategies without sufficient consideration of the costs and real utility," said L. David Montague, the panel's co-chairman and a retired president of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space. The Pentagon must strengthen its technical analyses, he added, so it "can better evaluate new initiatives." Mr. Montague, an engineer by training, is an independent consultant and one of the few members of the panel whose roots lie in the defense industry.
It was 2002 when Mr. Bush announced plans to deploy a limited system designed to protect the United States from missile attacks. Today, the rudimentary system consists of 30 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California. They are designed to zoom into space and destroy enemy warheads by force of impact.
In September 2009, Mr. Obama switched the focus from protecting the continental United States to defending Europe and the Middle East from short- and medium-range Iranian missiles. New intelligence, he said, had made Tehran's more modest accomplishments the more pressing threat.
The report called for developing a new generation of interceptor rockets that would be smaller and more capable, as well as five new radars at existing early warning sites. The panel said these radars, combined with sensors aboard the interceptors, would provide more time to identify enemy warheads and shoot at them repeatedly if the first shots failed.
The East Coast site, the report said, would require 50 of the new interceptors -- 30 for operations and 20 for testing and evaluation.
On Tuesday, a number of experts faulted the new plan. Theodore A. Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent antimissile critic, called the calculations behind the proposed radars "completely wrong and unrealistic." He continued, "They're claiming they can do things that are not physically possible."
Tom Z. Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, a private group in Washington, said the report made clear that the current domestic interceptors are woefully deficient and that developing new ones for an East Coast site "might take a decade or more."
At a news conference Tuesday, Mr. Montague defended the report and said the large panel had its own skeptics and proponents. "What we've agreed on," he said, "is what we said in the report."
Outside critics, he added, tended to overstate the skills of enemies of the United States seeking to build long-range missiles to develop ways to foil defenses. People in the aerospace industry who have made countermeasures for the warheads of United States missiles, Mr. Montague said, "know it's not as simple as a PowerPoint chart."science
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.