Thirty years ago, U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in which he asked, “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 reach our own soil or that of our allies?” That March 23, 1983, speech launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, a program that quickly became known as “Star Wars.”
With the fall of the Soviet Union the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to a Soviet attack ended, but the changes from a bipolar to a multipolar world that accompanied that fall has led to a proliferation of missile and nuclear warhead technologies. This has given less significant nations a disproportionate ability for disruption and added to the risk of terrorist organizations acquiring these capabilities. Attack no longer is expected primarily from Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The nation needs a comprehensive review rooted in the defense needs of the 21st century.
Throughout the past 30 years, the U.S. has continued research and development (R&D) on missile defense to answer the second part of the question asked by Reagan. Ballistic missile defense has been pursued by the Defense Department through offices that have been successively named SDIO, BMDO (Ballistic Missile Defense Organization) and MDA (Missile Defense Agency). It is time to assess what has been achieved and how close we have come to answering Reagan’s question. The objective of the BMD program is to intercept missiles of all ranges at all stages of flight. The hoped-for directed energy devices such as lasers and particle beam interceptors have proved too difficult to incorporate into Earth- and air-based systems, while the alternative of using space-based interceptors has been rejected because of international opposition to the militarization of space.
Thus, the bulk of the R&D effort has been concentrated on ground- and sea-based interceptor missiles and radar systems, supported by space-based sensors to provide earlier warning and track data on hostile missiles.
The R&D has proved the hit-to-kill capability that has been incorporated into interceptors to destroy incoming missiles without the use of an explosive warhead. The mobile Aegis-based system and land-based defense use these designs. The long-range homeland defense system in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on the West Coast has been designed to protect against intercontinental missiles that might be launched by Iran or North Korea, should either nation develop such a capability.
Some critics, however, point out that the system has been designed to respond to a less sophisticated, more remote threat, while ignoring imminent risks from shorter-range missiles that could be launched from ships off the coasts or from a hostile location in South America. It is far more likely that such an attack would be launched from a ship off the U.S. shores and leave no return address for us to target. By using a ship as an attack platform, the enemy need not be concerned with aim point accuracy and could achieve crippling success with a high-altitude burst producing an electromagnetic pulse to destroy our electricity grid.
The nation needs to develop an effective defense against such forms of attack because the older concept of deterrence through rapid and overwhelming retaliation may no longer apply. All this supports the case for a more comprehensive review of what is needed to defend the homeland against current and future threats.
Those who criticize the current strategy for national missile defense (NMD) refer to the attempts to provide missile defenses for Europe, the Middle East and Asian allies. These defenses will only be capable of intercepting intermediate-range attacks for the next decade because current interceptors cannot fly high and fast enough to reach intercontinental missiles that might over-fly Europe en route to America. Thus, current plans call for U.S. resources being deployed abroad that do nothing to enhance our limited NMD.
Critics also say the effectiveness of the system remains a design objective rather than a proven fact, but this is because there has been a paucity of successful tests of the NMD. The system was deployed rapidly toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term in 2007-08 and has never been formally declared operational.
As the deterrent concept has declined, the importance of an effective missile defense has grown. The program originally flourished with strong support from Reagan and somewhat less from President George H.W. Bush, who moved the program toward theater activities. The momentum of the program allowed it to survive under President Bill Clinton, even though the priorities were changed regularly.It thrived again under George W. Bush, and after withdrawal from the strictures of the ABM Treaty, an initial deployment of NMD followed. Throughout the past 30 years, it has remained principally a political rather than a military program. It is long overdue for change.
As strong supporters of BMD, we think it seems strange to suggest that a program that has spent close to $200 billion since 1983 and has had some significant successes needs an overhaul. But as individuals who were closely involved from the inception, we believe Reagan would not be satisfied with what has been accomplished. The concept has not fulfilled its potential.
Eugene Fox is vice president of Orman Associates, a defense and international consultancy, Rockville, Md. Stanley Orman is chief executive.