Key to missile defense, like surviving a cold winter, is to layer up

Key to missile defense, like surviving a cold winter, is to layer up
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Before my only visit to North Korea, all 10 feet across the border from South Korea in what’s called the “demilitarized zone,” the U.S. military gave me this written warning: “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

The real message from the briefing: “Something weird, random, violent and totally deadly can happen any time. Everyone here is locked and loaded with live ammunition. You visit at your own risk.”


That trip reminded me that I’m used to signing liability waivers for zipline rides across canyons, for a whitewater raft trip or even for a visit to a rock wall climbing gym. But no waiver brings the shiver of a visit to Panmunjom, where history has shown repeatedly that North Korean-based violence can break out for no reason whatsoever.  


That shiver reminds me that even the threat of massive retaliation from South Korea, Japan and the United States doesn’t ensure against violence that could instantly kill millions of people. North Korea, determined to build its nuclear capability, just tested a missile that might now hit any part of the U.S.

That’s why I’m supporting the United States' efforts to add new layers to strengthen our missile defense program. After 2001, when we got rid of treaty limitations to fielding a missile defense, we got a serious start. Now, as missile threats grow from North Korea, Iran and other actors who have found Scud missiles for sale in the world’s arms bazaars, it’s time for missile defense 2.0.

Improvements can be made to what we have in the ground at Ft. Greely, Alaska, Vandenberg AFB California, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries at ground installations around the world and the Navy Aegis at sea and ashore. We intend not only to make missile defense technologies advance, but to bring missile defense costs down.

Tom Rowden, director of surface warfare for the Navy, put the task this way: “If our enemy can develop a million-dollar missile but we have to shoot ten million dollars worth of missiles to ensure that they don’t inflict damage on our ship, we’re on the wrong side of the cost curve.”

To get down the cost curve, missile defense is taking on new layers:

“Left of launch” on the timeline: Good sensors in space, cyber-intelligence and other methods can sometimes tell us when an enemy is readying a missile for launch. Cyberattacks, high-flying drones with directed missiles and well-placed ground-based missiles all could disable a launch site we learn is preparing to fire an attack.

Directed microwaves might “fry” an offensive missile’s components before it ever gets off the ground. Hypersonic air-launched strikes on launch pads could reduce the ability to reload and launch another salvo of missiles.

Boost phase” missile defense technology: The "Holy Grail" in this business, what we all should be looking for, is a way to disable a missile at its most vulnerable stage, 300 seconds or so immediately after launch. Congress has finally consented to new studies of how a space-based network can rain interceptors down on an offensive missile while its original rocket engine is still burning.

Our current systems are mostly mid-course, aiming at a missile as it coasts through space, where evasive moves and countermeasures like decoy warheads are more likely to foil our interceptors. Lasers or microwaves fired from aircraft above the clouds could also disable a missile early in its launch.

Prevention of missile effects on the ground: Many believed civil defense drills to be a Cold War relic, but Hawaii — among two states closest to North Korea — is restoring some civil defense warning programs.

We also must no longer ignore the threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack, where the shock wave from a nuclear explosion in space could disable much of America’s electronics, our power system and our communications systems on the ground. 

Our civil power systems need hardening. The after-effects of an EMP attack would make the current post-hurricane months-long power outage in Puerto Rico look like a picnic. 

Each of these layers, pursued vigorously, should help render North Korea’s advances more and more useless. As the Department of Defense conducts its Ballistic Missile Defense Review and provides the administration policy recommendations for protecting Americans and global allies from missile threats, they would do well to supplement existing missile defenses by layering in new technologies.

We have never had a better bipartisan consensus on the need for this technology, and now is the time to move.

Mead Treadwell, lieutenant governor of Alaska from 2010-2014, is a founding member of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, which has networked think-tanks and defense experts in several nations to advance technologies to deter a missile attack on the United States.