Jeffrey LewisTrey Day

I asked Marc Schanz, journo-buddy of mine, to send along his impressions of Obering’s briefing the other day. I thought I would get some wry observations. Instead, I got a serious piece of defense journalism.

Anyway, apparently Obering freaked when asked about Russia — must be the Ibogaine.

I was under the impression that Lt. Gen. Henry “Trey” Obering’s briefing to Pentagon reporters on Tuesday was his “outbrief” – since the Army’s Maj. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, Obering’s deputy commander at MDA, is slated to take over when Obering goes on “terminal leave” in November. (Obering doesn’t retire until January.)

The outbrief will wait for another day. MDA is taking advantage of current events a bit – with the recent signing of an agreement with the Czech Republic and the Iranian missile tests earlier this month. Early in the brief, Obering cited Defense Intelligence Agency analysis stating Iran is working on an extended range version of the Shahab-3 and a new 2,000 kilometer medium range ballistic missile, dubbed the Ashura. In light of an invigorated Iranian missile effort, Obering indicated the MDA is moving on from focusing its efforts on a North Korean threat to the Iran threat — and the need to expand protection for deployed forces and allies in Europe from it.

Obering sidestepped questions about Iran’s exact present capabilities, refusing to confirm that the country fired a 2,000 kilometer missile earlier this month or back in February – saying only that the Iranians have stated publicly they had tested such a weapon. He argued there is “good evidence” the Iranians are developing longer-range missiles and anticipating the capability in the near future, Obering stated. He noted that US intelligence says that as soon as 2015 the Iranians could have an ICBM-class missile that could reach across the Atlantic – and that some of this capability could be gained through research obstensibly dedicated to a civilian space launch program.

Theater missile defense for European allies from the Iranian threat is a priority for MDA, Obering said, touting the NATO endorsement in the Bucharest summit this past April and the recent agreement with the Czech Republic on a future radar site. When asked about the Russians’ objections to the effort, he insisted that most of the objections raised stem from misunderstanding. “Russia’s primary concern was that we were exaggerating the Iranian threat and thereforce these sites in Europe must be directed at them,” he said. He emphasized that the presence of 10 kinetic interceptors in Poland could not do anything against the thousands of warheads the Russians have deployed.

The Russians, on their part have said publicly they would work to develop capabilities to counter any radar development in the Czech Republic.

Obering clearly has lost some patience with the matter, and had some pretty blunt comments for the Russians. “I won’t speculate on what the Russian motivation is. In fact, what I would ask you to do is to ask them, because frankly, I think it is… incumbent on them to justify those,” he said. “There is absolutely no justification in our eyes for some of their statements and some of their concern about these sites.” Obering reiterated that the interceptors are kinetic, don’t carry warheads and that any effort to turn them into missiles would be “imminently evident” to a casual observer.

“I think it’s time that world turns and asks the Russians to justify their position on why are they are acting, in our case, in such an unjustified way,” he added.

When not berating the Russians, a good bulk of the brief was dedicated to defending MDA’s track record – particularly in flight testing – since 2001.

The 2010 program objective memorandum is right around the corner, you know.

Thirty-five of 43 hit-to-kill intercepts have been successful since then, Obering said – arguing that the few failures were not a result of design flaws. “A component broke, or this particular component… had a malfunction that we had to replace. We have not had any major showstoppers in our overall program.”

Obering touted the five of five successful tests with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense program and the 13 of 15 tests with Aegis (arguably the most mature portion of the MDA portfolio) and six of nine tests with the long-range Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Program. Of course, he did a little expectation-lowering at the same time – announcing the delay of a planned interceptor test scheduled for July 18 due to a faulty testing component in the interceptor — a data card that records flight data and telemetry that was bad across the test fleet. A flight is planned for Friday, only now no interceptor will be used due to the danger of losing the test data – a prospect that is unappealing for a test that could cost upwards of $80 million. The full test has been pushed back until December, with Friday’s launch planned as a simulated intercept of a target missile.

While admitting that programs such as the Multiple Kill Vehicle and the Airborne laser are still eight to ten years from being operational, Obering touted the expansion of MDA’s activities since 2004 — pointing out that the agency plans to have a total of 30 interceptors by the end of the year for the long-range systems fielded between Alaska and California. As of today, 15 of the Navy’s Aegis destroyers are capable of launching the Standard Missile -3 interceptor (the marquee player in February’s satellite shootdown), with 30 of the missiles delivered to the Navy to perform the post-boost intercept mission.

“Now, one thing to remind you is that none of this existed just four years ago,” Obering said, adding a little rhetorical bear hug for the legislative branch. “We were able to do this in that time frame because of the special authorities and the special flexibilities we were given, both by the department and by the Congress.”

With the program objective memorandum for FY 2010 currently under construction, it remains to be seen whether the Congress – or a new administration – will extend the agency more rope, particularly on its less mature efforts.



  1. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    For those of you not Hunter Thompson fans, the “Ibogaine” comment refers to a rumor Thompson started about Muskie that people took seriously.

    The story is recounted in the movie Gonzo.

    In a panel discussion taped years later, Thompson chuckles as McGovern campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz calls Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 “the most accurate and least factual account of that campaign.” But Thompson’s mischief had real consequences when he speculated that Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie, whom he despised, was being treated with the obscure hallucinogenic drug Ibogaine by a shadowy Brazilian doctor. After Rolling Stone published his statement, thinking it too ridiculous for anyone to take seriously, it was picked up by the news wires as a legitimate story. “People really believed that Muskie was eating Ibogaine,” Thompson tells a TV interviewer. “I never said he was—said there was a rumor in Milwaukee that he was. Which was true, and I started the rumor in Milwaukee. . . . I’m a very accurate journalist.”

  2. J House (History)

    The Russians should have no fear from a system many still claim does not work, and therefore, should not be deployed, no?
    Beyond the political, defending Europe from an Iranian missile attack is no more than an expensive physics and engineering problem….and we’re getting better.
    But what would come of an Iranian-made weapon smuggled into Rotterdam or NYC?

  3. Major Lemon (History)

    J House makes a good point. Our (the Wests) preoccupation with the ballistic missile method of nuclear weapon delivery makes us miss the point that terrorists and terrorist state sponsors work differently. Freight container nukes, truck bombs, suicide lunatics et al.

  4. Mike H

    It does seem true that the Russians seem to relish causing trouble even though this doesn’t pose a threat to them.

  5. FSB

    J House:
    yes, to “work” MD would need to work perfectly. Even a MD system that is 95% effective (waaay optimistic) does not “work” as it provides a devastatingly leaky umbrella.

    Nevertheless, to keep even deterrence the Russian would have to simply increase the numbers of missiles they fire (assuming 95% will get shot down) — and that is the worry. MD fuels increased nuclear arming.

    Yes, you should also worry about terrorists smuggling weapons into ports, and on trucks. When you have figured out how to stop that, they will come up with another way.

    Google “fallacy of the last move”. btw, MD is the poster boy for the “fallacy of the last move”

    Ultimately, you will need dialogue with your enemies to achieve some measure of sanity.

  6. Ak Malten (History)

    Dear Friends,

    if the US would stop threatening other countries and using deployed Nuclear Weapons (Illegally, according to International Law, by the way ! ) to underline their threats towards other States, whether they have Nuclear Weapons or are Non-Nuclear Weapons States, it would serve the World and the US interests in the best sense of word. For other countries there would be no reason to develop Nuclear Weapons to deter the US from attacking them, for the US in response there would be no reason build a shield that is very, very and very expensive and will not work in the first place.

    The best way out of this mess would be negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention, or “the days of the US Empire will be numbered from now !”. Let us face reality and act accordingly, we would want to live a little longer don’t we ?…

    Ak Malten,
    Global Anti-Nuclear Alliance

  7. Major Lemon (History)

    Mike, its in the Russians interest to cause trouble. They cause trouble then back off when the West gives them an economical or political payback.

  8. Magoo Nair (History)

    Considering that “The U.S. Navy is floating the idea of developing a new ballistic missile for global attack operations that could also be used as an interceptor in the nation’s evolving strategic missile defense system”, Obering’s argument that Russia’s “objections raised stem from misunderstanding” is a pile of hogwash. The Potential of deployment of ‘dual purpose’ missiles is a way of a one sided circumvention of the INF Treaty and Russia has no intention to accommodate General Obering’s gibberish. We can expect them to unilaterally abrogate the INF Treaty as Washington did the ABM Treaty and create far more serious issues than an “imaginary Iranian potential to target Europe with their missiles”. Me thinks Washington is wittingly or unwittingly enlarging the scope of a Russian-American nuclear confrontation – a step backwards to the ‘Cold War’.]

  9. FSB
  10. abcd (History)

    “The Russians should have no fear from a system many still claim does not work, and therefore, should not be deployed, no?”

    “It does seem true that the Russians seem to relish causing trouble even though this doesn’t pose a threat to them.”

    It’s not so much a matter of specific military hardware per se, rather the political and strategic implications of US mil-mil cooperation with a former Warsaw Pact member that so worries Moscow, for better or for worse. The move represents an extension of US political influence on Russia’s periphery – again, whatever one thinks of US intent or Russia’s objections – and the consolidation of Washington’s security committments across nearly all of the European continent. I thought that much was obvious, but some around here seem to overlook that simple fact.

    Furthermore, as Ted Postol and George Lewis wrote:

    “Russian analysts would also be concerned that the United States might expand the number of interceptors in Poland to take advantage of such an EMR’s prodigious abilities to guide numerous interceptors simultaneously. Indeed, unless one believes Iran will stop building long-range missiles once they get to 10, such an expansion must be expected. Once interceptor manufacturing facilities are operating, additional interceptors could be obtained by extending manufacturing runs, by expanding manufacturing facilities, or both. The primary obstacle to an expansion would be political: increasing the number of interceptors would require modifications to an existing agreement with Poland. If Poland is already hosting U.S. interceptors, the biggest political obstacle would already have been overcome.”

  11. Robbie (History)

    Come on guys, the idea of Iran attacking Europe is rubbish. This is only believed in the US. It’s rubbish. The US is trying to provoke the Russians into a belligerent response to stir up trouble between the EU and Russia because of the increasing rapproachment between them. A free trade area is being talked about and the EU is increasingly dependent on Russia for energy for example. “…it’s in the Russians’ interests to cause trouble”? Please! The US wants missiles on Russia’s borders and when the Russians object they’re causing trouble? Like the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan – when the locals shoot back after ‘shock and awe’ and carpet bombing, they’re terrorists. What about the Cuban missile crisis when the US had nukes all around Russia so Kruschev put some in Cuba. Well the US was very troublesome then. Nearly caused a nuclear war. Maybe the Russians will put some missiles on Cuba again to protect the US from, well, Venezuela? I have to say, guys, this site is an education. Glad I found it.