The threat environment that faces the US today has evolved rapidly over the past three decades. Nowhere is this more evident than in the expanding constellation of countries with access to ballistic missiles.
Iran continues to improve its missile launch capabilities while North Korea develops its missiles and nuclear posture, all despite international pressure. These states possess advanced capabilities to threaten regional allies such as Israel, South Korea, Japan and Europe, and rudimentary capabilities to strike our homeland.
We need a stable, consistently funded missile defense program that develops at a pace akin to the ballistic missiles and nuclear aspirations of countries like North Korea and Iran. That means we must invest enough to deploy existing systems like Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Aegis, while continuing to invest in and test new capabilities to help us stay ahead of the missile threat.
While military service leaders have a long-term view on the value of missile defense, policy-makers have taken a feast-or-famine approach in the past. Federal funding rises and falls based on assessments of imminent threats and the pulse of the electorate.
Our national defense is best served by consistent dedication to missile defense research, development and procurement that accounts for our need to be prepared for threats that may not yet be fully understood.
The proliferation of missile technology has changed warfare at the regional level. To see this, only look at what has happened in Israel. The threat of rocket and missile attacks has grown exponentially and has driven Israel to develop a number of layered defensive systems to counter these enemy threats at various altitudes and distances.
This is part of a growing body of operational work that indicates missile defense has convincingly progressed past its early years as a theoretical solution to a theoretical threat — we now have proven and tested systems that must be deployed to counter proven and tested threats.
Missile defense systems can alter the calculus in a regional conflict. For example, this month, the US placed several Patriot missile batteries on the border dividing Syria and Jordan. At Turkey’s request, the NATO alliance has also deployed Patriots to its border with Syria.
Just as missile defense can make a difference on a regional basis, it can also make a difference worldwide. Rogue nations look to wield greater power by threatening global actors like the US with their developing systems. As North Korea and Iran flex their muscles on the international stage by testing longer-range offensive weapons, the US must keep improving and deploying defensive systems to counter this threat.
Testing makes a difference to a missile defense program. Tests are critical for the advancement of interceptors, sensors, and command and control. Some people are discouraged by failures and use these failures as an excuse not to fund the systems. Nowhere is this more evident than in the overwrought and critical responses to the Missile Defense Agency’s July 5 missed test intercept. Yet such test “failures” in an experimental environment can actually be a beneficial step, helping improve products and capabilities.
For example, the Patriot system has undergone dramatic improvements since it was used in the first Gulf War. The Army’s THAAD program initially had problems, but we worked through these challenges to develop a highly reliable system thanks to testing and commitment.
We need a stable, steady stream of funding to test our systems and learn from those tests so that we can continue to build out a layered missile defense system proven to stop all variants of missiles.
A consistent, adequate budget allocation for all aspects of missile defense, both operational and testing, will help us achieve our goal. Yet the opposite is taking place, even as threats increase. The administration’s budget justification for the Missile Defense Agency, released in April, projects that the agency’s budgets in fiscal 2014-18 will be $600 million to $1 billion lower each year compared with what it spent in 2012. And that doesn’t begin to take into account the significant bite of sequestration cuts.
We, as a nation, have to incorporate missile defense fully into our defense dialogue and ensure that we are able to counter future threats. This process requires adequate investments to develop, procure and deploy the appropriate sensors, interceptors and command-and-control systems to do the job.
Instead of doling out funds in response to an individual crisis, we should steadily invest now to avoid a lack of preparedness or even disaster in the future.
WilliamLennox, a retired US Army lieutenant general and former superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He runs Lennox Strategies and consults with various companies, including Raytheon.