It's time for Congress to reassess our investment in national missile defense

It's time for Congress to reassess our investment in national missile defense
© U.S. Missile Defense Agency

Over the weekend, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg reportedly said North Korea's nuclear program “is a global threat and requires a global response.” Stoltenberg declined to say whether an attack on Guam would trigger Article 5, NATO’s collective defense pact, which says that an attack against one member is considered an attack against all.

This occurred as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un just authorized the country's sixth nuclear test, its largest by far. Coupled with its recent long-range missile tests and threats to Guam, it is clear that Congress must meet Kim's threats with a realistic response as well as a robust defense.

As Congress gets ready to reauthorize defense spending for the year, it is time for lawmakers to evaluate defense policies along with our weapons systems to decide what is truly working.

The power to decide how federal monies are spent is granted to Congress under the Constitution, and the defense reauthorization bill is a good chance for Congress to prioritize the country’s defense spending needs. Inter-continental missile defense is one way that the U.S. can defend itself from an increasingly bellicose North Korea without antagonizing the hermit nation. This fact isn’t lost on nations in the region as the Pentagon’s number one weapons supplier reports that it is fielding missile defense systems requests from countries caught in the crosshairs of the hot rhetoric.

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Several decades ago, President Reagan advocated building an intercontinental missile defense system. The idea was to shield the United States from a first-strike missile attack by an enemy by firing an intercepting missile that would safely disable an adversary missile in the sky.

 

Congress authorized funding for the program, called SDI in those days, in 1984. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush shifted priorities away from the broader original goal of the defense of North America from large-scale strikes to theater missile defense, President Clinton renamed it the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and narrowed its scale even further to regional defense. BMDO was renamed and became the current Missile Defense Agency.

Reagan showed an amazing amount of foresight. The idea which was mocked at the time as science fiction akin to “Star Wars,” has developed into several anti-ballistic missile defense systems, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD). GMD was designed to intercept warheads midcourse in space. The THAAD missile defense system is principally designed to shoot down short, medium and intermediate ballistic missiles. It uses radar to detect an incoming missile threat, and then the crew manning the system launches an “interceptor” projectile from a truck that disrupts the ICBM through kinetic energy, essentially destroying the missile via sheer speed.

While THAAD successfully shot down a target over Alaska in July, experts say the system could not handle a threat from multiple missiles capable of being of being shot by a larger nation like Russia. The Pentagon compares what these systems can accomplish to destroying a bullet with another bullet, at vastly higher speeds. Several decades after its inception, Reagan’s dream is close to reality.

But due to cut backs over the years, and a constant shift in priorities for missile defense, the program is not as robust as it should be. Any time there is a serious threat, politicians trot the system out as our fallback plan, but they have been loathe to provide the funding it requires. The system is responsible for defending against threats as diverse as Russia, Iran, North Korea, and rogue states including ISIS. Funding for the program has remained stagnant, even as threats multiply.

While some tests of the system have successfully demonstrated its potential, blind tests need to be conducted that consistently confirm the program’s ability to protect the U.S. And while the system is presently positioned in Alaska and California in order to defend the Western U.S., it should be expanded to protect the Eastern seaboard as well.

The 2018 version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which may soon face a vote in the Senate, includes a requirement that the U.S. purchase an additional 28 ground-based interceptors, to be located mostly in Alaska. It also requires the Pentagon to report on whether the U.S. should buy 100 more interceptors for locations across the United States.

The U.S. has spent over $40 billion on the 36 interceptors in Alaska and California. We have spent at least five times that amount on the war in Afghanistan. The conservative cost breakdown from the Congressional Research Service estimates that between 2001 and 2014, the war in Afghanistan had cost the U.S. $686 billion.

As Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) asked on Twitter, “Which one makes us safer?"

Barbara Boland is a former communications director for Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and former editor for the Washington Examiner. She is also the author of “Patton Uncovered,” a book about how General Patton became the most respected and feared American general in World War II.