* Israeli expert advances timeline
* U.S. estimate is further out
* Missile-defense debate at issue
HUNTSVILLE, Ala., Aug 20 (Reuters) - Iran could have the ability to strike most of Europe with a ballistic missile within three or four years if it made an all-out push, the former head of Israel’s missile defense program said on Thursday.
If correct, the timeline cited by Uzi Rubin, a leading authority on Iran’s program, puts a fresh note of urgency into a diplomatically thorny debate over building a multibillion-dollar anti-missile shield in Europe.
U.S. officials have cast the timeline further out, leaving longer to sort out defenses.
“If they push it -- put all the budget, put all the engineers -- three or four years” is all it would take to give Iran’s existing ballistic missile a range of 3,900 kilometers (2,438 miles), enough to hit London, Rubin told a U.S. Army-sponsored missile-defense conference in Huntsville, Alabama. “Will they do it? I’m not sure.”
The U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center said in a report made public in June that Iran, with support from outside sources, could produce an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States within six years.
“Iran has ambitious ballistic missile and space launch development programs and, with sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015,” the report said.
Rubin said Iran had achieved “a technological and strategic breakthrough” with its Sejjil, a two-stage, solid propellant missile. On May 20, Iran test-fired the Sejjil 2, which is said by Tehran to have a range of about 2,000 kilometers.
“Based on its demonstrated achievement in solid propulsion and staging, Iran will face no technological challenges” in close to doubling its range with a one-ton warhead, said Rubin, who oversaw development of Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system while running the Jewish state’s missile defense effort from 1991 to 1999.
“The predictions (about Iran’s growing missile reach) are coming true, perhaps sooner than anyone thought,” he added in reply to a question after a presentation. “I think there was an underestimation of Iranian capability.”
By contrast, Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles by countries like Iran and North Korea was taking longer than the United States had predicted.
Cartwright’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
David Wright, a leading missile-defense critic, said the timeline advanced by Rubin “doesn’t sound crazy if Iran poured resources into it.”
“But there is a lot we don’t know about the program, and technical problems could stretch out the time,” said Wright, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent research group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Fitting any nuclear warhead to a missile is likely to take Iran six years or longer, experts agree.
At the conference in Huntsville, Boeing Co BA.N unveiled a proposal to build a mobile interceptor missile in an effort to blunt Russian opposition to Bush-era plans to install interceptors in Poland and a tracking radar site in the Czech Republic.
Raytheon Co RTN.N, the world's biggest missile maker, said it was developing a land-based version of its existing Standard Missile-3, a star of U.S. missile defense from the sea, that could be used to defend Europe, Israel and elsewhere.
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