In Defense of Missile Defense

U.S. sailors are arriving in Romania to flip the switch on a new missile-defense facility, the first of two missile-defense sites scheduled to come online in Eastern Europe in the coming years. One might expect advocates of missile defense to see this as good news. However, it comes with an asterisk. Even as missile defense gains support around the world -- and understandably so, given the metastasizing missile threat -- it’s not gaining support where it arguably matters most.

Three decades ago, there were nine countries that fielded ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32. Several of them are unstable (Pakistan and Egypt) or unfriendly (Iran and North Korea) or both (Syria).

Because of the nature of their regimes -- adjectives like paranoid and terrorist come to mind -- North Korea and Iran are the most worrisome of the world’s missile threats. To be sure, other regimes have larger, more lethal arsenals, but those other regimes are relatively rational and stable, which means the old rules of deterrence can keep them at bay. That may not be the case with a nuclear-armed Iran or an unraveling North Korea.

Earlier this year, Beijing estimated that North Korea possesses 20 nuclear warheads -- and could have 40 by 2016. Pentagon brass recently assessed North Korea’s nuclear-capable KN-08 ICBM to be operational. This is a regime that spasmodically tests nuclear weapons and warned in 2013 it was prepared to launch “a preemptive nuclear attack” against the U.S. and South Korea.

The Pentagon reported in 2012 that Iran may be able to flight-test an ICBM by this year. Iran already has launch sites for long-range missiles. But Iran’s missile reach is not limited to land-based assets. In 2004, Pentagon officials confirmed that Iran secretly test-fired a ballistic missile from a cargo ship. This is a regime that is following North Korea’s road map to the nuclear club, that normalizes terrorism into a basic government function, that threatens to wipe neighboring countries off the face of the earth.

But if proliferation gives us reason to worry, two realities offer reason for hope. The first is the record of missile defense in battle and in testing.

In battle, U.S. missile-defense assets intercepted nine inbound Iraqi missiles in the early stages of the Iraq War, shielding the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait from a decapitation strike. Saudi Patriot batteries recently knocked down missiles fired by Iranian-backed militia in Yemen. Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system -- relying on the same basic principles as longer-range missile defense -- intercepted 735 inbound threats and registered a kill rate of nearly 90 percent during the most recent war with Hamas, Aviation Week reports.

In testing, this system of systems has scored successes on 66 of 82 hit-to-kill intercept attempts since 2001 -- an 80-percent success rate. The Aegis sea-based system has achieved 29 successful intercepts in 35 attempts. The ground-based interceptor (which targets inbound threats near their highest point) has hit 9 of 17 intercept attempts. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD, which targets threats near the end of their flight trajectories) has scored a perfect 11 out of 11 in testing.

The second reason for hope is the growing global architecture of missile defenses. The operative word here is “global.” Twenty countries, plus the NATO alliance, are part of the emerging international missile defense (IMD) coalition.

President Bill Clinton signed legislation that paved the way for deployment of a missile-defense system, reflecting the emergence of a national consensus on the issue. Thanks to that consensus, President George W. Bush was able to begin deploying a layered system of missile defenses, including ground-based interceptors, a chain-link fence of radars spanning the globe, sea-based Aegis interceptors and theater-wide defenses. By 2008, NATO had endorsed U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe, including Bush’s proposal for permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and IMD radars in the Czech Republic.

With a wary eye on North Korea, Japan deploys Aegis warships and hosts IMD radars. South Korea fields Patriot batteries and Aegis warships, and is edging toward purchasing a THAAD system.

Israel and the U.S. have collaborated on development of missile defenses for decades. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States agreed in May to “a region-wide ballistic missile defense capability,” with Washington promising technical assistance. The UAE recently became the first foreign government to purchase a THAAD battery.

However, the IMD system’s technical successes and global advances have occurred in spite of -- rather than because of -- President Barack Obama’s policies.

Unlike Clinton and Bush, Obama seems to view missile defense not as a new tool in the arsenal, but as a bargaining chip. To mollify Moscow, Obama unilaterally scrapped the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans for NATO. Instead of planting permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and IMD radars in the Czech Republic, Obama opted for missile-defense warships in the Mediterranean and a scaled-back, land-based variant of the Aegis system, dubbed “Aegis Ashore.” Obama’s missile-defense reversal gained nothing from Moscow and fractured relations within NATO. The Czech Republic rejected Obama’s plans as “a consolation prize.” A Polish defense official called Obama’s retreat “catastrophic.”

The Obama administration’s initial budget cut overall missile-defense spending by 16 percent. The president shelved the airborne laser and ultimately reneged on his own watered-down plans for Eastern Europe. The administration’s 2013 budget proposal hacked another $810 million from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent, reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile-defense capabilities and capped the number of U.S. ground-based interceptors at 30 instead of the planned 44. (When Pyongyang started rattling nuclear sabers in 2013, the administration scrambled to deploy those extra 14 interceptors in Alaska and California -- interceptors that would have been operational if Obama had simply followed the bipartisan plans put in place before his presidency.) All told, missile-defense funding has been slashed from $9 billion per year to $7.8 billion per year under Obama.

Those cuts have consequences. The Navy deploys 33 ships equipped with Aegis missile defenses. By the end of 2016, the Navy will need 77 Aegis ships to meet combatant commanders’ requests. MDA has nowhere near the resources to meet that.

None of this should come as a surprise. During his 2008 campaign, Obama vowed, “I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.” His staff made it clear he would support missile defenses only “when the technology is proved to be workable.” Critics of missile defense use words like “workable” and “proven” to set such a high standard that anything less than a 100-percent intercept rate means the system is “unproven” or “unworkable.”

But if (when) an American or allied city is in the crosshairs of an inbound missile, who would prefer a 0-percent chance of intercepting the killer rocket -- something guaranteed by not fully funding, not testing and not deploying a missile shield -- over an 80-percent or even 50-percent chance?
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.

U.S. sailors are arriving in Romania to flip the switch on a new missile-defense facility, the first of two missile-defense sites scheduled to come online in Eastern Europe in the coming years. One might expect advocates of missile defense to see this as good news. However, it comes with an asterisk. Even as missile defense gains support around the world -- and understandably so, given the metastasizing missile threat -- it’s not gaining support where it arguably matters most.

Three decades ago, there were nine countries that fielded ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32. Several of them are unstable (Pakistan and Egypt) or unfriendly (Iran and North Korea) or both (Syria).

Because of the nature of their regimes -- adjectives like paranoid and terrorist come to mind -- North Korea and Iran are the most worrisome of the world’s missile threats. To be sure, other regimes have larger, more lethal arsenals, but those other regimes are relatively rational and stable, which means the old rules of deterrence can keep them at bay. That may not be the case with a nuclear-armed Iran or an unraveling North Korea.

Earlier this year, Beijing estimated that North Korea possesses 20 nuclear warheads -- and could have 40 by 2016. Pentagon brass recently assessed North Korea’s nuclear-capable KN-08 ICBM to be operational. This is a regime that spasmodically tests nuclear weapons and warned in 2013 it was prepared to launch “a preemptive nuclear attack” against the U.S. and South Korea.

The Pentagon reported in 2012 that Iran may be able to flight-test an ICBM by this year. Iran already has launch sites for long-range missiles. But Iran’s missile reach is not limited to land-based assets. In 2004, Pentagon officials confirmed that Iran secretly test-fired a ballistic missile from a cargo ship. This is a regime that is following North Korea’s road map to the nuclear club, that normalizes terrorism into a basic government function, that threatens to wipe neighboring countries off the face of the earth.

But if proliferation gives us reason to worry, two realities offer reason for hope. The first is the record of missile defense in battle and in testing.

In battle, U.S. missile-defense assets intercepted nine inbound Iraqi missiles in the early stages of the Iraq War, shielding the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait from a decapitation strike. Saudi Patriot batteries recently knocked down missiles fired by Iranian-backed militia in Yemen. Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system -- relying on the same basic principles as longer-range missile defense -- intercepted 735 inbound threats and registered a kill rate of nearly 90 percent during the most recent war with Hamas, Aviation Week reports.

In testing, this system of systems has scored successes on 66 of 82 hit-to-kill intercept attempts since 2001 -- an 80-percent success rate. The Aegis sea-based system has achieved 29 successful intercepts in 35 attempts. The ground-based interceptor (which targets inbound threats near their highest point) has hit 9 of 17 intercept attempts. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD, which targets threats near the end of their flight trajectories) has scored a perfect 11 out of 11 in testing.

The second reason for hope is the growing global architecture of missile defenses. The operative word here is “global.” Twenty countries, plus the NATO alliance, are part of the emerging international missile defense (IMD) coalition.

President Bill Clinton signed legislation that paved the way for deployment of a missile-defense system, reflecting the emergence of a national consensus on the issue. Thanks to that consensus, President George W. Bush was able to begin deploying a layered system of missile defenses, including ground-based interceptors, a chain-link fence of radars spanning the globe, sea-based Aegis interceptors and theater-wide defenses. By 2008, NATO had endorsed U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe, including Bush’s proposal for permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and IMD radars in the Czech Republic.

With a wary eye on North Korea, Japan deploys Aegis warships and hosts IMD radars. South Korea fields Patriot batteries and Aegis warships, and is edging toward purchasing a THAAD system.

Israel and the U.S. have collaborated on development of missile defenses for decades. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States agreed in May to “a region-wide ballistic missile defense capability,” with Washington promising technical assistance. The UAE recently became the first foreign government to purchase a THAAD battery.

However, the IMD system’s technical successes and global advances have occurred in spite of -- rather than because of -- President Barack Obama’s policies.

Unlike Clinton and Bush, Obama seems to view missile defense not as a new tool in the arsenal, but as a bargaining chip. To mollify Moscow, Obama unilaterally scrapped the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans for NATO. Instead of planting permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and IMD radars in the Czech Republic, Obama opted for missile-defense warships in the Mediterranean and a scaled-back, land-based variant of the Aegis system, dubbed “Aegis Ashore.” Obama’s missile-defense reversal gained nothing from Moscow and fractured relations within NATO. The Czech Republic rejected Obama’s plans as “a consolation prize.” A Polish defense official called Obama’s retreat “catastrophic.”

The Obama administration’s initial budget cut overall missile-defense spending by 16 percent. The president shelved the airborne laser and ultimately reneged on his own watered-down plans for Eastern Europe. The administration’s 2013 budget proposal hacked another $810 million from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent, reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile-defense capabilities and capped the number of U.S. ground-based interceptors at 30 instead of the planned 44. (When Pyongyang started rattling nuclear sabers in 2013, the administration scrambled to deploy those extra 14 interceptors in Alaska and California -- interceptors that would have been operational if Obama had simply followed the bipartisan plans put in place before his presidency.) All told, missile-defense funding has been slashed from $9 billion per year to $7.8 billion per year under Obama.

Those cuts have consequences. The Navy deploys 33 ships equipped with Aegis missile defenses. By the end of 2016, the Navy will need 77 Aegis ships to meet combatant commanders’ requests. MDA has nowhere near the resources to meet that.

None of this should come as a surprise. During his 2008 campaign, Obama vowed, “I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.” His staff made it clear he would support missile defenses only “when the technology is proved to be workable.” Critics of missile defense use words like “workable” and “proven” to set such a high standard that anything less than a 100-percent intercept rate means the system is “unproven” or “unworkable.”

But if (when) an American or allied city is in the crosshairs of an inbound missile, who would prefer a 0-percent chance of intercepting the killer rocket -- something guaranteed by not fully funding, not testing and not deploying a missile shield -- over an 80-percent or even 50-percent chance?
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.