The future has arrived

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But the future of air combat changed forever in January, 2007, when the People’s Republic of China showed the world that they were capable of shooting down a satellite orbiting the earth in outer space. The era of ‘Star Wars’, as articulated by Ronald Reagan a quarter century earlier and widely mocked in the media, had dawned.

Thirteen months later, the United States learned that one of our satellites had gone rogue, posing the risk of crashing to earth and releasing hazardous fuel. The AEGIS guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie launched a Raytheon Standard Missile (SM-3) on February 21, 2008, and from the pitching deck of that warship achieved a kill shot of the satellite 133 nautical miles over the Pacific Ocean and wobbling through space at more than 17,000 miles per hour. It was the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet or as a Marine Corps sniper would say, ‘One shot, one kill.’

Modern air superiority involves defending more than the skies we can see with the naked eye; it now extends deep into space and some of the world’s most brutal regimes are seeking ways to exploit that. North Korea and Iran are both expanding and improving their ability to wage war via intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and the warheads they carry. American superiority in the air and in space depends upon a strategic ballistic missile defense (BMD) which demands the best technology, the budget to support it and the will power to stand toe-to-toe with those who would seek to threaten us.

More than a decade ago, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before Congress in defense of the Clinton Administration’s decision to slow America’s BMD efforts. The conventional wisdom of the day was that the threat of surprise, incoming ICBMs was many years away. A few weeks later, North Korea fired a missile that landed a lot closer to Hawaii than anyone thought possible. That was in August, 1998. Since then, advances in technology and the proliferation of intermediate range and intercontinental ballistic missiles have resulted in larger numbers of more accurate weapons now in the hands of untrustworthy countries like North Korea and Iran.

The American response so far to these emerging threats is the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program, which is building on the lineage of the Sidewinder, Sparrow and SM-3 missiles to create the new exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV). The EKV is essentially an SM-3 on big league steroids, with the added bonus of an infrared heat sensor and maneuvering propulsion system. It too can “hit a bullet with a bullet” and testing is giving engineers the information they need, through both success and failure, to perfect the system.

The future is today and the Star Wars theory of the 1980s is real. With defense spending coming under close scrutiny as Congress and the administration wrestle with how to balance the federal budget, there’s no substitute for understanding the threats that confront us and responding to them effectively.

No one can place a price on the loss of an American city and its people to an enemy ICBM. But the sobering truth is that America must defend itself on land, on the seas, in the air and now, in outer space. The United States established air superiority in the past and now is the time to take a page from our prior missile successes and propel that success into space through comprehensive missile defense capabilities.

Edward Timperlake is a former Director of Technology Assessment, International Technology Security at the Pentagon and a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot.