In a commentary in the July 30 issue, “Reprioritize U.S. Missile Defense Needs,” Scott Erickson pointed out the illogicality of missile defense funding plans in the administration’s 2013 defense budget proposal.
He noted that despite the recent test-firing successes of the Standard Missile SM-3 Block IB, resources would be withdrawn from that program while vast sums would still be allocated to the SM-3 Block IIB, also called Aegis ashore, a conceptual missile in development that may be available in 2020.
Erickson’s concern relates well to a Hill Congress Blog post by Rebeccah Heinrichs (May 17). Heinrichs said that successful homeland defense requires the ability to intercept short- and intermediate-range missiles that could be launched from ships or from South America, in addition to possible threats of long-range missiles from Iran, North Korea or other hostile nations or terrorist groups.
The common thread is that the U.S. national missile defense (NMD) against ballistic missiles lacks a comprehensive overview, a problem that can be traced to the origins of the Strategic Defense Initiative. President Reagan initiated SDI in 1983 as a way to end the stalemate of mutual assured destruction between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The president envisaged a means of providing missile defense for America, thus all early efforts concentrated on intercept-ing intercontinental missiles.
It was recognized there was no means to defend against the huge Soviet arsenal of intercontinental missiles. Fortunately, Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, the founding director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, interpreted his task broadly and allocated resources to theater defense. This led to successful hit-to-kill technologies for the Patriot and Aegis systems and other developments.
These technologies underpin current theater and national ground-based missile defense systems. Combined with the naval systems, these could provide a reasonably effective homeland defense against emerging nuclear nations.
The long-range homeland defense systems deployed in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base on the West Coast are designed to protect against intercontinental missiles from Iran or North Korea. The system has not been designed to respond to more imminent risks from shorter-range missiles that could be launched from ships off either coast or from South America.
If a hostile nation could deliver a nuclear warhead by missile, it is far more likely it would attack from a ship off U.S. shores. Such an attack would leave no return address.
For example, several nations could provide a nuclear warhead to a terrorist group to use against the U.S. To pinpoint the source of the nuclear material by analyzing the residue after an attack would take months— hardly a way to promote the concept of deterrence.
By attacking from a ship, a hostile force need not be overly accurate. A high-altitude burst producing an electromagnetic pulse could destroy the electric grid. An effective defense is needed against such attacks because the older concept of deterrence, based on the threat of rapid, overwhelming retaliation, no longer applies.
The House has passed a budget allocating funds to an East Coast missile defense site, but the Pentagon claims it is unnecessary. And the president has threatened to veto a defense budget that includes funds for any coastal defense site.
This lack of a comprehensive NMD strategy is exemplified by attempts to provide missile defense for Europe, the Mideast and Asian allies. Defenses planned for Europe will only be capable of inter-cepting intermediate-range attacks for at least the next seven years. These interceptors cannot target the intercontinental missiles that might fly over Europe to America.
Footing the cost of placing systems in Europe that do nothing to enhance NMD appears to reflect the lack of a comprehensive overview of the requirements.
It seems strange to suggest that a program that has spent more than $150 billion since 1983 and has an allocation of about $10 billion per annum has been pursued without adequate reviews. But throughout, it has been a political rather than a military program.
It originally flourished with strong support from Ronald Reagan and somewhat less from George H.W. Bush, who moved the program more toward theater activities. The program’s momentum allowed it to survive under Bill Clinton, even though the priorities were changed regularly during his eight years in office, effectively slowing any possible deployment.
It thrived again under George W. Bush, after withdrawal from the strictures of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. This led to an initial NMD deployment, although it has not been successfully tested for four years.
The program has remained a politically supported rather than a militarily required program. It is time for a radical change.
By Eugene Fox, left, vice president, and Stanley Orman, chief executive of Orman Associates, Rockville, Md., a defense consulting firm.