Iran's announcement that it has developed the 1,200-mile range Ashura ballistic missile is being viewed with some concern by the Pentagon.
Although the Defense Department has long been projecting Iranian ballistic missiles to achieve that range, it was expected to be through upgrades of the long-known Shahab-3. However, the Ashura is "different," says U.S. Missile Defense Agency director Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering. "That's what surprised us," he said.
Moreover, Obering notes that the Ashura's emergence indicates how much work Iran is putting into improving its ballistic missile defense capability.
Obering was here in Paris once again trying to make the case for a European site for the ground-based midcourse defense system. He noted that the Iranian effort underscores the need to proceed.
The Pentagon also has been talking to Russia to reduce Moscow's anxiety over the emergent missile defense shield on its doorstep and has offered both radar data sharing and other inducements.
Obering says that one proposal would have the Pentagon proceed with building the missile defense facilities - emplacing a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland -- but that the European site would not become operational until a clear threat from Iran emerged. One trigger could be flight-testing of an advanced ballistic missile, for instance. Talks with Moscow appear to involve how to verify the difference between an operational and nonoperational system - the Defense Department would prefer to have interceptors already in their silo.
Moscow so far has been cool to the plan and proposals put forward, but Obering says more talks already are scheduled. And he concedes many more visits to Europe will likely be needed before political consensus is reached.
The Pentagon would like to start construction next year of the missile defense site, and hopes Prague and Warsaw will agree by no later than early next year. If that's the case, the plan to get the missile defense site up and running would be delayed only six months from the schedule put forward earlier this year - the schedule change reflects a congressional cut in the project's budget.
Testing of the two-stage interceptor would begin in two-three years, with the full system to be tested end to end and ready for operations around 2013. Obering notes that the change to the interceptor is minor. The U.S.-based interceptors are three stage, so the third one would need to be removed and the adaptor for the kill vehicle modified. However, he argues it's not a major development effort.