In March 1983 President Reagan asked the American people to support the development of missile defenses to help protect the country from ballistic missiles. Although critics immediately described the effort as a “Star Wars” scheme to militarize the heavens, and the Soviet Union was convinced America was plotting to strike Moscow with “space strike weapons,” the American people overwhelmingly supported the missile defense research effort despite both the opposition from disarmament advocates and the militarists in the Kremlin.
Now 34 years later, where are we?
Second, it was only after 9-11 that then President George W. Bush said it was time to get rid of the ABM Treaty. In 2002, President Bush then called for ground based interceptors to be deployed in Alaska and California to protect against what we feared might be a “limited” strikes from rogue nations such as North Korea or Iran.
Luckily, the Congress had previously passed and President Clinton signed the Missile Defense Act of 1999. But while the new law required the United States to deploy a missile defense of the country, the Clinton administration at the time refused to push hard for deployment. In fact, in mid-2000, they halted an important launch to test the candidate system for deployment.
However, the missile defense research since 1983 called for by then President Reagan was very valuable and enabled President Bush to call for deployment by 2003-4. Missile defense interceptors were first deployed in Alaska and California, where 44 are now deployed.
Third, it is indeed reasonable to ask won’t our nuclear retaliatory capability do the job of deterring North Korea? After all our nuclear deterrent has successfully deterred the Soviet Union and now Russia from attacking the United States with nuclear weapons. Why not just rely on retaliatory deterrence?
However, missile defense does not replace nuclear deterrence. It adds to it. As President Reagan insisted, missile defense gave us an alternative to just holding each other mutually hostage by threatening retaliation if we were attacked first. He hoped U.S. technological prowess would better protect the American people by developing defenses. He also knew missile defense would give us leverage for deep reductions in nuclear weapons; add to deterrence not substitute for it; provide insurance against an accidental or unauthorized missile launch; and change the deterrent equation to emphasize protection not revenge.
Fourth, as USAF retired General Dan Leaf, former vice commander of the USAF Space Command wrote recently, “the National Security Strategy and Ballistic Missile Defense Review must serve as a starting point for a concerted, strategic and sustained effort to improve overall missile defense for the homeland.”
“A comprehensive program to improve the protection of the United States from ballistic … missile attack is imperative. (And) this program must extend beyond the current immediacy of efforts to counter North Korean developments.”
What should the United States then do?
Many keen observers start with a plea for faster acquisition. Multi-year buys would help as would steady and robust multi-year missile defense budgets. Frequent testing aimed to field equipment protecting America should be funded as well.
What should an enhanced missile shield look like?
We should deploy the sensors in space that give us a sharp view of where the enemy missiles are coming from, where they are going and how to track them. We must improve discrimination and achieve persistent coverage in depth of the threat.
There are advanced discrimination technologies that can be quickly developed and put into play on existing platforms. We also need more multi-intelligence investments to know more about DPRK capabilities. Lasers are also showing increased promise, and land developed hypersonic weapons should also be rapidly developed, as well as non-kinetic technologies designed to disrupt launch capabilities of our adversaries.
We should provide additional missile defenses including Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), to our allies in the Republic of Korea (ROK) as well as provide the inventory of defense capabilities required by our combat commanders around the world.
We can duplicate the Navy Aegis systems already being deployed in Poland and Romania, using the Aegis SM (standard missile) and its related radar and command and control. These land deployments avoid having to purchase additional Aegis cruisers at a cost exceeding $1 billion each. But the area they protect is limited so additional missile defense elements are needed to protect our homeland.
For example, we could require the Missile Defense Agency to spend $100 million to develop a boost phase intercept capability. As Sens. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal Austin, Milley to testify on Afghanistan withdrawal The Pentagon budget is already out of control: Some in Congress want to make it worse MORE (R-Okla.) and Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization More Republicans call on Biden to designate Taliban as terrorist group Overnight Energy: Judge blocks permits for Alaska oil project MORE (R-Alaska) outlined in a December 1 letter to Senate Committee on Appropriations Chairman Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE (R-Miss.), existing remotely piloted unarmed vehicles, plus key radar elements and modified missile interceptors could put a system into the field in 18 months.
Such an unarmed vehicle could loiter off the coast of North Korea and over ROK continuously for over 20 hours of continuous flight, and thus a small series of platforms could provide the needed coverage.
We can also add to our ground based interceptors beyond the 66 now planned, perhaps up to 100, adding in as well the MKV or multiple kill vehicle, giving the Alaskan- and Californian-based system an enhanced capability to shoot down multiple dozens of incoming targets. An option to deploy some mobile variants should be seriously examined, as well as an East Coast defense site for more ground based interceptors.
Four of the past five tests of the newly upgraded Alaska based interceptors have been successful, and thus the protection provided by the Alaskan and Californian missile defenses exceeds what some professional critics claim.
Finally, the moral imperative of missile defense must replace the current narrative of the professional missile defense critics who think American missile defenses are part of some bizarre conspiracy to strike our enemies first. The Soviet Union held such views which President Reagan demolished during negotiations with then-Soviet leader Gorbachev.
Why are we letting the same arguments be resurrected by disarmament advocates with little real-world defense experience and who think a missile shield is a sword in disguise? And we must drop the pretense that somehow all “realistic” tests must fail, because all “successful” missile defense tests must somehow all be “rigged.”
While our enemy’s capabilities are threatening, the overall record of real-world missile defense intercepts — the Patriots over the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, as well as the Iron Dome over Israel — 85 to 90 percent, is a highly positive number that exceeds by far the cooked-the-books criticism of the disarmament lobby.
If we cannot protect the American people other than to hold them hostage to a mutual assured destruction doctrine, we have failed in our most basic constitutional duties. Mutual assured destruction has been discarded for many decades. Why resurrect it now just as the gathering storm of clear and present nuclear missile dangers is emerging with speed from over the horizon?
Missile defense is a moral imperative, the fulfilment of which the American people are guaranteed under our constitution requirement “to provide for the common defense.”
A global, layered missile defense system does that job.
Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association. He is also the president of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm.