Time for a Missile Defense

By Jeff Kueter, President, Marshall Institute

If there was any doubt as to why the United States needs a missile defense system, it has been dispelled by the recent actions of North Korea. Having shunned negotiations, North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship leaves little doubt about their access to nuclear weaponry. Seven years ago the North Koreans demonstrated long-range missile capability, are now believed to have the means to strike Hawaii, Alaska and the western United States, let alone Japan, and have just recently ended their moratorium on long-range missile testing. And yet, in the face of this crisis, the Defense Department’s proposed budget slashes $1 billion this year and billions over the next five years from the only program that can protect the American people from such grave threats.

However, North Korea is not the only threat. Ballistic missile technology is widely available and will only spread over time. Over thirty nations can launch short- and medium-range missiles and some have access to advanced long-range missile technology.

Unfortunately, the wavering commitment of past Presidents and Congresses to missile defense has left the United States virtually defenseless against ballistic missile attacks today. Until now, our nation was protected by a single ineffectual layer of rhetoric. President Bush’s December 2001 decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and proceed with the deployment of an ambitious multi-layered missile defense finally overcame this seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Much progress has been made and a limited defense against North Korea is now under construction.

The challenge now to the United States is whether we will live up to the rhetoric and provide the resources needed to defend the nation against a catastrophic threat in the face of the pressing domestic financial burdens.

A robust defense deters rogue nations and terrorist groups. By lowering the probability of a successful missile strike, the enemy is denied the certainty of its effectiveness, and is virtually guaranteed retaliation for such an attack.

Additionally, one should be mindful not only of the cost of the system, but the protection it is designed to provide—the only real protection against a limited nuclear-, biological-, or chemical-armed ballistic missile attack on the American people.

Building a robust, multi-layered defense is not an easy task. The technologies are sophisticated, the engineering is challenging, and the global integration of sensors, assets, and communications to precisely hit a "bullet with a bullet" is daunting. Important steps have been taken, but more is needed to protect American people, our fielded forces abroad and our friends and allies.

The eight interceptors recently deployed in Alaska and California provide a limited defense against the North Korean threat and, if expanded, would offer protections against missiles launched from the Middle East. Not surprisingly, moving the system from the drawing board to the field is very challenging. Deploying advanced systems is not without complication, but the fundamental ability to intercept and destroy an attacking missile has been demonstrated.

Continued work on this system is necessary, but the proliferation of ballistic missile technology calls for an even more comprehensive approach. Facing a period of fiscal austerity and a billion dollar budget cut, the missile defense program must re-examine its options and place a premium on those approaches capable of producing highly adaptable defenses which together can engage threats from multiple locations around the globe and defend against short-, medium-, and long-range missiles.

In the short term, continued emphasis on the most mature options is appropriate, for they confront today’s long-range missile threats. The Navy’s SM-3 interceptor recently continued its string of impressive performance and offers a viable defense against short to intermediate range ballistic missiles. The Patriot PAC-3 and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems offer promising approaches for dealing with the widespread threat from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, particularly for US forces abroad.

This defense also must exploit the missile’s most vulnerable point, the initial stage of flight known as boost-phase—a capability which the US currently lacks. Of the current efforts focused on boost-phase defense, neither provides global coverage without an extensive network of ground bases. Most distressingly, a promising option is not even being studied. Contrary to the gross overestimations of cost and underestimations of capability, space-based interceptors offer a cost-effective and potent defense in the boost and ascent phase. Recent analyses of technical and cost factors confirm the capability and flexibility of localized constellations of space-based interceptors placed over "trouble spots." This is, in fact, the most efficient and effective way to destroy ballistic missiles.

We cannot firmly predict the threats we will face tomorrow nor should we presume that we will recognize threats as they emerge in the future. A missile defense is a hedge against that state of uncertainty. North Korea’s recent actions prove that the threat of a missile attack is a serious hazard to the United States which should prompt us to redouble our efforts to protect the American people. To those who say this is wasteful, we should ask whether they have a viable alternative to NO defense.