Anti-ballistic missile defense shouldn't be a political football

Anti-ballistic missile defense shouldn't be a political football
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The visionary President Reagan proposed a radical departure from mutually assured destruction in 1983: what if the United States built a defensive shield to protect itself from nuclear missiles?

“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” Reagan asked.

At the time, the idea was ridiculed as "reckless" and dubbed "Star Wars" by none other than U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). But three decades later, the anti-ballistic missile defense systems the U.S. developed stand athwart enemy missiles that would destroy our homeland.  

We don't hear about these systems often. In fact, they only seem to merit the attention of news anchors or politicians when there's an escalation in tensions with North Korea, China or Russia. This is a real shame, because these systems take decades of development and funding before they are able to reach their full potential. They are an investment in our country's future safety from enemies we do not yet know.


But even as threats from rogue states multiply, funding over the years has remained essentially stagnant. We have spent $123 billion on missile defense systems since 2002. Compare that to the approximately $5 trillion spent on conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria since 2001, and ask yourself which is the better investment.

If an enemy fires a warhead at us, our wars in the Middle East cannot defend us against it mid-course in space, the way Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) can. Similarly, wars in the Middle East won't protect us from short, medium or intermediate ballistic missiles. But we have spent orders of magnitude more on wars in the region than we have on missile defense systems. After successful testing,the Pentagon compared our ballistic missile defense to destroying a bullet with another bullet, at vastly higher speeds.

Some critics argue that despite Pentagon assurances that our 44 missile interceptors are enough to protect the U.S. mainland, the system is not reliable. Experts say that the THAAD missile defense system could not handle threats from multiple missiles. This is of concern particularly now, as experts believe North Korea has the ability to drop nuclear payloads anywhere in the United States.

In 2017, Congress authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for missile interceptors built by Boeing, Orbital ATK, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. 

We cannot know for sure how these systems will function in the real world. Department of Defense tests have typically been controlled, and there have only been four successful ballistic missile intercept tests since 2004.

Critics use these facts to question the integrity of the program altogether. But the program is far closer to the fruition of President Reagan's vision than when it was mocked as "Star Wars" in the 1980s. In August of this year, the U.S. conducted a successful interception of a medium-range ballistic missile off the coast of Hawaii, proving that Reagan was right to ignore critics and develop the systems.

Yet, for these systems to work properly, they need to be fully funded, developed and tested over the course of many years — not trotted out at the convenience of politicians whenever North Korea becomes uncomfortably bellicose. There needs to be proper oversight and accountability, which Congress has been loathe to provide because a failed test could result in the political liability of the whole program.

This is where politicians on both sides should unite. Instead of treating these programs like a political football, lawmakers should on both sides of the aisle should agree that this defense expenditure is a long-term investment in the safety and security of the U.S. homeland.

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.