The Iran deal marks a new phase in the nuclear age: the advent of new nuclear states. It dramatically increases the probability of Iran joining nuclear weapons to its substantial ballistic missile inventory — either when the agreement ends or sooner, should Iran decide to “break-out” of the deal. At the same time, there are nuclear developments in Russia, China and North Korea with serious implications for U.S. defense requirements.  

Russia has a broad modernization of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems underway, China is expanding its ballistic and cruise missile programs in number and type, and North Korea has announced a resumption of nuclear testing and has deployed a mobile ICBM.   


Despite the rapidly changing and increasing threat, the main elements of U.S. missile defense have remained mostly static over the past decade and funding, especially of advanced programs, has been reduced significantly since 2008. Notably, the administration has chosen to deploy a more limited defense system in Poland than originally planned, abandon plans to deploy a powerful radar in the Czech Republic, and cancel the Airborne Laser (ABL), developed to destroy ballistic missiles in their boost phase. 

The US must address this threat urgently with a comprehensive missile defense plan focused on development, deployment and diplomacy. 

On the development front, the U.S. should develop alternatives for low-cost interceptors and lower cost sensors. Given that U.S. interceptors cost upwards of $12 million, radars more than $200 million, it is not surprising that few of our allies are investing in missile defenses. By comparison, the Israeli Arrow Weapon System is highly capable, and its components cost a fraction of U.S. interceptors and land-based radars. A natural expansion of the current arrangement — where U.S. Defense Department funds support Israeli missile defense systems development — would be to license these systems for production in the United States and export to friends and allies. 

The next step would be to develop small satellites for missile tracking and surveillance. The advances in small satellite technology make this an attractive option, providing needed coverage from space, replacing the defunct Precision Tracking and Surveillance System program, and lessening American vulnerability to Chinese and Russian anti-satellite systems. 

The Airborne Laser’s 2010 shoot down of a boosting ballistic missile demonstrated that directed energy is applicable to the missile defense mission. However, its cancellation combined with cuts to other directed energy programs has prevented the U.S. from fielding high energy laser systems. With additional monies a range of lasers could be utilized for multiple purposes such as augmenting short range defense systems like Israel’s Iron Dome. 

While it would be extremely expensive to entirely replace the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system that protects the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missiles, its components should be modernized on a regular basis and tested with more frequency to ensure reliability and effectiveness. 

Turning to deployments, an expanded U.S. missile defense architecture must encompass land-based and sea-based systems, as well as space-based systems. At a minimum, the U.S. must establish a third GMD sitepreferably in the Northeast. This site would provide additional time and battle space to defeat a potential Iranian ballistic missile attack. 

Facing an immense threat from the North, South Korea is considering indigenously developing its own missile defense system. But missile defense is a costly, complex and time-consuming endeavor; the U.S. has already invested over $170 billion in missile defense research, development and deployment during the past three decades. Even with a crash effort and billions of dollars, South Korea is unlikely to achieve an effective missile defense capability on its own within a decade. We should offer to assist South Korea in procuring and deploying an appropriate and effective missile defense system. 

The 20 international cooperative agreements negotiated by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), provide a framework for global missile defense diplomacy. These agreements should be expanded to allow for co-development, information sharing and additional deployments. 

Japan is an ideal candidate for cooperation and co-development with the U.S. in directed energy technologies. To ensure success, such an effort should not be limited to government agencies, but encompass industry from both countries. Also, U.S. export control mechanisms should enable, rather than cripple such endeavors. 

More can also be done with Israel, in particular co-production and selective export of U.S.-assisted and funded Israeli systems. Such a deal would supplement Israeli production capacity -- a visible and meaningful demonstration of U.S. support -- and also provide less costly options to friends and allies. 

Washington’s diplomatic efforts should include a review of the Obama administration’s 2009 decision to redesign the missile defense system planned for Europe. The motive was to deploy a less capable system politically acceptable to Russia. Given Russia’s behavior, options to augment the planned missile defense system should be considered as part of a missile defense “reset.” 

Finally, providing America’s allies and friends with greater access to our global network of sensors — used to monitor hostile missile developments and operations in near real-time — would significantly improve their missile defenses. 

While it is a near certainty that the Obama administration will not embrace such a plan, the U.S. Congress should begin to lay the foundation for the next administration by: robustly funding missile defense and directed energy programs, amending the export control process to facilitate U.S.-allied cooperation on missile defense technologies, and appropriating funds to establish a third GMD site in the Northeast United States. 

A global network of robust and integrated missile defenses is the only real insurance and protection against the mounting ballistic missile threat. A U.S. global missile defense action plan is not just an option, it is an imperative.

Ricardel served as acting assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Policy from 2003-2005.