Earlier this month, while South Korean President Lee Myung Bak was visiting the United States, his military commanders were back home watching out for ammunition boxes.
North Korea’s military had moved combat aircraft, mobile ground-to-air missiles and missile launchers to attack positions near the border with the South. Had those ammo boxes – the final step in preparations for an attack – appeared, whether for war-making or simply for live-fire exercises, it might well have triggered a resumption of the shooting war that began in the 1950s and never truly has ended.
Elsewhere recently, a North Korean diplomat at low-level talks at the University of Georgia said war on the peninsula seems closer now than it has in decades, and Iran was linked to a clumsy attempt to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington. The Iranians also are “playing” in hot spots throughout the Middle East – from Syria to Yemen to Egypt and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and working feverishly to overcome a cyber attack on its nuclear weapons development program.
Clearly, this is no time for the United States to let down its guard on missile defense. Congress – which is under pressure to cut defense spending but maintain capabilities – must show resolve to ensure our nation, troops and allies are protected.
Recently, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to strip $123 million in funding for development of a follow-on to the most successful ballistic missile defense weapon the nation has ever deployed. Not funding a new missile that won’t be ready for another 10 years may be appropriate given our current budget constraints, but those dollars should be immediately invested in missiles that protect us from near-term threats.
The system currently in use – the SM-3 IA – is the United States’ first line of defense against short-range airborne attacks. It is a ship-based system used by the Navy to intercept enemy ballistic missiles. It is the key component of President Obama’s planned European missile shield and the NATO effort to defend against missile threats posed by Iran, North Korea and others.
Moreover, it is the very definition of a successful weapons program. The United States has purchased just shy of 100 SM-3s, and all have been delivered on time and on cost.. The SM-3 IA had 19 successful back-to-back intercepts at the end of its testing program and is now deployed. The SM-3 IB’s first flight test did not result in intercept, which is not uncommon in the early testing of new missile variants. Even without the intercept, Patrick O’Reilly, director of MDA, called the results of the flight test “extremely encouraging.”
But we need more. Rear Adm. Alan Hicks, director of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Program, has said the projected number of deployed SM-3s is “inadequate for our combatant needs” and that “we still have a tremendous demand signal for more missiles.”
Importantly, SM-3 missile may help us beyond the prospect of short-range attacks. In April, the SM-3 IA delivered a surprising result. Designed to defend against short-range missile attacks, the system surprised even its development team when it knocked out an intermediate-range missile in a test over the Pacific Ocean. If the most basic variant of SM-3 can take out an intermediate range ballistic missile, what will evolved variants be able to do?
It’s not a stretch to say that future SM-3 variants such as the IIA could one day be capable of taking down ICBMs, a strategic priority that deserves Congress’ support. On IIA we even have a partner, in Japan, that has contributed more than $1 billion to development expenses. And partners are extremely valuable in this pursuit. They are force multipliers who contribute both to the cost and to the effectiveness of the shield. We need more partners like Japan who are willing to share the burden and cost of ballistic missile defense across the globe.
To be sure, our enemies seem more determined than ever to produce these weapons. Iran suffered a significant setback to its uranium enrichment program in the recent cyber attack. But in June, the government announced it would triple efforts to develop weapons-grade uranium. Once that is accomplished, the Iranians will be nuclear-capable within months.
North Korea also continues to perfect its long-range delivery devices and to export them to rogue regimes, such as Iran, Syria and perhaps others. Planners fear the East Coast of the United States will be vulnerable to long-range missile attack from Iran by 2015 and that the West Coast already may be vulnerable to missile attacks from North Korea.
To make matters worse, internal conditions in Iran and North Korea further increase the possibility of attacks. Both regimes are failing, flailing and increasingly likely to attack others to maintain their own positions of power.
The good news is we have a reliable, cost-effective weapon, partners in development and deployment, a track record of procurement success and a path forward.
If we’re serious about missile defense, we have no choice but to beef up acquisition of the SM-3 IA and continue the development of IB, and IIA. And if we’re paying proper attention to the actions of our adversaries, we better be serious about missile defense.