WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ground-based interceptor missiles to be deployed in the western United States in 2010 will be able to shoot down long-range Iranian rockets, Pentagon officials said on Thursday, brushing aside criticism of the Obama administration’s European defense overhaul.
Israel will also get added protection under the administration’s missile shield, the officials told Congress.
U.S. Navy ships equipped with Aegis missile interceptors, to be deployed in the eastern Mediterranean, “can provide an entire additional layer of defense over Israel,” the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said.
President Barack Obama has come under fire from Republicans in Congress for refocusing U.S. missile defenses in Europe on what U.S. intelligence agencies see as the more immediate threat from Iranian short- and medium-range missiles, which could target U.S. ally Israel as well as American forces in the Middle East and parts of Europe.
But Republican critics said Obama’s decision could leave the U.S. mainland and parts of Western Europe more vulnerable to attack from an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (IBCM), a concern the Obama administration disputes.
Pentagon policy chief Michele Flournoy, appearing before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said the 30 ground-based interceptor missiles to be deployed in Alaska and California by the end of 2010 will “provide the United States with full protection of the homeland against an Iranian ICBM threat.”
Lieutenant General Patrick O’Reilly, head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, said the U.S. sites were well positioned to defend against both Iranian and North Korean rockets.
Some critics believe the Alaska and California sites will be less effective in defending the East Coast of the United States than a scrapped Bush administration proposal to put 10 large ground-based interceptors in silos in Poland.
“They (the interceptor missiles) can go both ways. If you look at the Earth from a polar projection, from the North Pole, you’ll see that actually that the closest part of the United States to Iran is Alaska,” O’Reilly said. “It’s in a prime location for both threats.”
In addition to deploying the Aegis system on ships, land-based interceptors will be placed in Europe starting in about 2015, according to the White House.
In justifying the decision to scrap former President George W. Bush’s system, Pentagon officials cited a new intelligence estimate, completed in May, that deemed Tehran unlikely to have a long-range missile until between 2015 and 2020.
A previous intelligence assessment during the Bush years said the threshold would be crossed between 2012 and 2015.
“Let me simply say, I’m skeptical,” Rep. Howard McKeon, the top Republican on the committee, said. “Intelligence is a fickle business.”
Flournoy countered, “The very real threat of short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles, that is developing faster, must be dealt with sooner.”
But she acknowledged that intelligence “can be wrong.”
“Iran’s priorities and capabilities may change in ways that we can’t predict. So our new approach does not discount the potential future threat of an Iranian ICBM,” she said.
Some Republicans in Congress have accused Obama of giving in to pressure from Russia, which opposed the Bush administration missile defense system, to curry Moscow’s support for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher denied any such arrangement, but said: “We were obviously knowledgeable of the ancillary benefits of working more closely with Russia.”
Pentagon officials say U.S. missile defenses against Iranian ICBMs could be enhanced by Russian radar systems.
Editing by Will Dunham