Missile defense approaches its 30th anniversary with both great accomplishments behind it and great challenges before it. President Reagan’s vision of a defense sufficient to blunt the use of ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads as instruments of coercion, blackmail, and terror has made great progress and is in place to protect against Iranian and North Korean threats, but is not yet fully achieved.
Since March 1983, the United States and its allies have built a layered network of over 1,500 missile interceptors and associated sensors that truly has become the basis of a global, integrated missile defense capability that can indeed defend the free world from the threats of rockets and ballistic missiles of all ranges.
Unappreciated is the fact that the research prior to the initial deployment of America’s first missile defenses helped make them possible. And in just the past year, America has successfully tested: a Navy sea-based interceptor guided to a successful intercept by a space-based sensor; a new version of a sea-based interceptor against a separating target; an improved kill vehicle on its long-range missile interceptor; a Patriot PAC-3; a very complex test using both sea and land-based interceptors against five targets simultaneously—the most in history; and a joint U.S.-Israeli Arrow-3 and David Sling inaugural test.
These systems are deployed only for defensive purposes and must deal with a threat which is one part intent and one part capability. We have seen the capability of hostile nations like North Korea and Iran. They are deploying multiple missile systems as they seek to blackmail and coerce the U.S. and its allies to achieve their geopolitical objectives. Late last year Hamas, a terrorist group, launched hundreds of rockets, many made in Iran and shipped through the Sudan, against Israel. And we saw the new Israel Iron Dome defense shoot down nearly 85 percent of rockets it engaged, an extraordinary achievement.
Just think if we had adopted the view of some of the critics of missile defense, that North Korea and Iran are building better and more deadly missiles but their intent is benign because they seek only to defend themselves. Their intent can change overnight but our defensive capability cannot.
A 1998 report on ballistic missile threats to the United States warned that rogue state missile capabilities could be significantly augmented with help from other nations. In the recent launch of North Korean and Iranian rockets we have discovered connections to Chinese technology and Russian propellant, giving added weight to the proposition that Tehran and Pyongyang are seeking in their nuclear programs grave threats to the free world.
Years ago, the Pakistani-based A.Q. Khan network sold its nuclear weapons wares to clients in Iran, North Korea and Libya. North Korea in turn built a nuclear reactor in Syria and assisted Iran with both its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, while building rockets for Pakistan, as well. We ignored these original signs of a poisonous coalition of rogue “Nukes ‘R Us” states to our detriment. Now America faces more serious threats as nuclear arms are being matched with ballistic missile capabilities.
While we do not know what “axis of threats” will emerge down the road, we cannot rest on our current successes or capabilities. Even as we shared the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, we did invest in future precision technologies that allowed us, for example, to greatly expand the capability of our aircraft and precision guided munitions.
Thus, whatever the eventual size of the reduction in defense spending over the next decade, we will place the U.S. in grave danger if we do not make the necessary future investments in new missile defense technologies to keep us safe.
The U.S. first must jettison the idea that space-based systems are prohibited. They are not. Our military needs to undertake fact-based experiments and tests to determine what future systems to deploy, especially as we see threats emerge from Hezbollah to China.
The approach needs to be balanced. We can enhance the long range interceptors deployed in Alaska and California and expand their deployment to the US East Coast for more robust protection against a nuclear armed Iran. This should be complemented by a deployment of appropriate defensive systems to guard against maritime challenges, including an EMP nuclear threat.
We must also proceed with all phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach – particularly with phases 2 and 3 which are both already under development and could protect our European and Asian allies – while producing a sufficient numbers of Navy Standard Missile-3s.
And we need to ramp up production of our sea and mobile land-based interceptors that provide protection to our deployed forces. New kill vehicles and sensors are needed, including multiple kill capabilities, with interceptors based both at sea and land. Our alliance cooperative programs with Japan and Israel work very well; they should be expanded within NATO as those allies need to commit real resources to the fight.
We face challenges today as we have in the past. But as we did in the past 30 years, we met it with the “can do” attitude of a strong America, as we continue to meet our constitutional requirement to “provide for the common defense.”