America, don’t shy away from a bold missile shield

KCNA via Getty Images

The recent Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) test by North Korea raises the problem of the slow and expensive path to successful and reliable U.S. missile defense. Hitting and destroying a flying nuclear warhead with a warhead or a laser beam is a technological feat that we cannot accomplish reliably and cheaply.

But as more and more countries, some of them harboring ill will towards the U.S. and led by unstable leaders, acquire deliverable nukes  — acquiring and maintaining this capability is something we must do.

As the Nazis launched the U-2 ballistic missiles in World War 2, the Allies began trying to develop anti-missiles. While this was initially considered impossible, the U.S. eventually developed doomsday weapons, such as the Nike ZEUS missile boasting a 25-kiloton nuclear warhead. The Soviets achieved a successful warhead intercept and deployed a nuclear-tipped A-35 anti-ballistic missile system around Moscow in 1959, followed by more advanced rockets.

Meanwhile, despite all billions of dollars and intense labor expended, the U.S. still does not have a nation-wide missile defense system. Ronald Reagan’s ambitious 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), maligned as “Star Wars”, attempted to develop missile defense concepts using   advanced materials and lasers. It was scaled down under Bill Clinton and downgraded to a theater missile defense effort.

{mosads}Under George W. Bush, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization was renamed the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), and after the 9/11 attack, a sustained effort was made to quickly deploy regional missile defenses against potential North Korean and Iranian threats, as well as against accidental launches by Russia and China.


Clearly, the massive and rapid North Korean ballistic missile development is a threat to the American homeland that is likely to escalate. While “Li’l Kim” can reach Anchorage and Honolulu today, tomorrow it could be San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C.

The only system in place today capable of shooting down Kim’s nukes is the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system that includes twenty-six interceptors, which are based in Fort Greely, Alaska and only four in Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The MDA rushed these land-launched interceptors into service without sufficient testing. The Obama Administration decided that the threat was not significant and cut the funding, and today we are capable of stopping two or three missiles – if we are lucky. Unfortunately, the current system is not as reliable as current technology allows, and the U.S. desperately needs more interceptors.

In the Game of Thrones, neglecting the Wall by Westeros invited an invasion by the White Walkers. A weak ballistic missile defense can invite a nuclear attack on the U.S.

The GMD system is an unfortunate necessity that the MDA should further develop starting with perhaps the most important part of the system — the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) — to provide limited defense from future threats that may come — and not just from North Korea. Iran, despite the Obama-era nuclear deal, is still developing intermediate ballistic missiles, which, as North Korea just demonstrated, are a stepping stone towards an ICBM.

In 2014-2016, successful tests of the EKV accomplished warhead intercepts in outer space, the equivalent of hitting a bullet with a bullet. To keep the system developing apace, the Department of Defense should take both an evolutionary and revolutionary approaches to updating this important technology.

The revolutionary approach is to develop the Multiple Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV), a system that will destroy multiple warheads and decoys an enemy could throw at us. This system will take at least 10 years to develop. It is has not been designed, let alone tested and we do not know how expensive will it be.    

The evolutionary approach is to upgrade the EKV with the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), which is critical in the near- and mid-term. This is what USNORTHCOM and NORAD are calling for, and what civilian and military leaders, such as Congressman Trent Franks (R-Ariz.); Gen. (ret.) Charles H. Jacoby, Jr., the former commander of NORAD of Missile Defense Agency; and Vice Admiral James D Syring, Director of Missile Defense Agency, recommend. After all, the current EKV technology dates back to the 1990s. The time has come to bring the GMD system into the 21st century.

Military technology will always remain a competition between offense and defense, between the sword (or spear), and the shield. As Congress and the White House consider the country’s defense priorities, let’s make sure the U.S. has the toughest and the best, as well as the most cost-effective, missile shield we can make.

Ariel Cohen, PhD, is the director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, and senior fellow (non-resident) at the Atlantic Council.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Ariel Cohen Bill Clinton National security North Korea Trent Franks

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