Two forms of deterrence create security in this unstable world of nuclear and missile proliferation.
The traditional concept was to make a potential opponent understand that hostilities could not succeed because it would prompt such an overwhelming response the aggressor would cease to exist.
Later, President Reagan enhanced the concept to include anti-ballistic missile defense, demonstrating that an attack could not succeed and providing more time for assessment before launching a nuclear response.
Both elements are equally important because deterrence is far from a precise procedure and is highly dependent on the perception that each side has of the other.
Our fear for some years has been that nations like North Korea and Iran may not be dissuaded from attacking American facilities by the threat of nuclear retaliation. Certainly, terrorist groups to whom either nation might be tempted to pass on offensive capabilities would not be deterred by such threats.
It is in this environment that effective missile defense assumes the greatest importance, and why the failure of the July 5 test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system has sent the wrong message to those we want to deter.
Somewhat belatedly, the test failure induced senators and House members to write to the secretary of defense to express their concern. Their concern is well founded, but where was it over the past five years when two other tests failed? And why are Republican lawmakers suggesting that limited funding by the Obama administration could be responsible for the recent failure?
This recent test was of an operational system that was hurriedly deployed in 2004 to meet the President Bush objective of having a capability against enemies that might not be deterred by the threat of overwhelming retaliation. When the system was deployed in Alaska, we noted in a letter (Defense News, 7/17/06) that while we were sympathetic to those who want to see progress, “we also recognize the danger of placing undue reliance on an untested system. To date too much faith has been placed on partial and simulated tests.”
The continued reliance on a few well-scripted tests and more computer simulations has led to the belated interest now being shown by some members of Congress. According to first reports of the failed test, the kill vehicle did not separate from the booster rocket. If correct, the limited data that have been collected from the test will provide little additional knowledge of the performance of the kill vehicle.
Rather than introducing party politics, Congress and the Pentagon should be calling for a thorough overhaul of ballistic missile defense (BMD) activities. The naval Aegis BMD system has demonstrated much more successful development than the current national missile defense (NMD). There is little confidence an upgraded NMD system will work any better.
Critics have repeatedly claimed that hostile nations could add decoys to outwit our defensive system. Although we know that such additions are not easy to introduce, the initial NMD was deployed on the understanding that it could only intercept comparatively simple ballistic trajectory missiles and later be enhanced to ensure interception of more sophisticated attacks.
But testing has been so limited there is no functioning NMD baseline on which to introduce such improvements.
The US fails to recognize that many nations hostile toward us exchange information and capabilities in the same manner as we do with trusted allies. That is how Pakistan and North Korea rapidly became nuclear weapon nations, shortly to be followed by Iran.
The Reagan doctrine to add missile defense would give the president options beyond launching a nuclear reprisal when advised that a launch had been made against us. Confidence that incoming missiles could be intercepted provides breathing space for a more considered response.
The problem revealed by the recent test failure and the neglect of adequate testing has effectively nullified the enhancement envisaged by Reagan. This leaves our security resting on our nuclear deterrent — an effectiveness that relies on how hostile nations perceive we might react if attacked.
The reliability of our warhead stockpile also relies on computer simulation, together with breakdown and reassembly of existing warheads. We have previously expressed our concern on the loss of nuclear expertise and capabilities.
Congress should know that both systems are too reliant on computer simulation and far too short on demonstrated capability.
Eugene Fox, left, vice president, and Stanley Orman, chief executive of Orman Associates, a defense and international consultancy, Rockville, Md.