WASHINGTON (AP) - Secret Defense Department studies cast doubt on whether a multibillion-dollar missile defense system planned for Europe will ever be able to protect the U.S. from Iranian missiles as intended, congressional investigators say.
Military officials say they believe the problems can be overcome and are moving forward with plans. But proposed fixes could be difficult. One possibility has already been ruled out as technically unfeasible. Another, relocating missile interceptors planned for Poland and possibly Romania to ships on the North Sea, could be diplomatically explosive.
The studies are the latest to highlight serious problems for a plan that has been criticized on several fronts. Republicans claim it was hastily drawn up in an attempt to appease Russia, which had opposed an earlier system. But Russia is also critical of the plan, which it believes is really intended to counter its missiles. A series of governmental and scientific reports has cast doubt on whether it would ever work as planned.
Sailors man the rails aboard the guided -missile destroyer USS Barry as the ship departs the Norfolk Naval Station, Thursday.
At a time that the military faces giant budget cuts, the studies could prompt Congress to reconsider whether it is worthwhile to spend billions for a system that may not fulfill its original goals.
The classified studies were summarized in a briefing for lawmakers by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' nonpartisan investigative and auditing arm, which is preparing a report.
The GAO briefing, which was not classified, was obtained by The Associated Press.
Military officials declined requests to discuss the studies on the record. Even speaking on condition of anonymity, they declined to say whether the GAO had accurately reported its conclusions.
But the GAO briefing had been reviewed by several Defense Department officials and the revisions they requested were incorporated. There was no indication they had objected to how the studies had been described.
The officials who spoke to the AP emphasized that the interceptor intended to protect the United States is in the early stages of development and its capabilities are not known. They said that the U.S. is already protected by other missile defense systems. Even if European-based interceptors are unable to directly defend the United States, they say they would protect not only European allies and U.S. troops stationed on the continent, but also U.S. radars there that are necessary for all U.S. missile defense plans.
Missile defense has been a contentious issue since President George W. Bush sought to base long-range interceptors in central Europe to stop missiles from Iran. Some Democrats criticized the plans, saying they were rushed and based on unproven technology. Russia believed the program was aimed at countering its missiles and undermining its nuclear deterrent.
While it might seem logical for the U.S. to want to have a defense against Russian missiles, it's not so simple. A new missile defense system aimed at Russia could undermine the balance between the nuclear powers.