Editor's note: This submission was updated to correct the attribution for a quote by former NORTHCOM chief Adm. William Gortney related to the perceived threat posed by Russia.
"Order to Intercept Missiles Issued." This was The Japan News headline on 21 June 2016 when the Japanese defense minister responded to an impending North Korea missile launch. He made the same decision three weeks earlier for exactly the same situation. The good news here: these North Korean missile launches resulted in failed tests of their Musundan ballistic missiles.
Just a few days ago, North Korea declared the U.S. and South Korea will suffer "extreme uneasiness and terror," threatening to physically act against both nation's as they determine where to deploy an advanced anti-missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), in South Korea.
What if these were not tests or threats, and the rogue nation really launched conventional or nuclear ballistic missiles? How would Japan, or South Korea, or for that matter, territories or sections of the United States defend themselves?
This is one of just a few real world examples of why it is imperative our warfighters and our allies must be equipped with the most advanced anti-ballistic (upper tier) missile defense systems. Make no mistake about it — the United States, its allies, partners and friends must all stay ahead of the threat from hostile nations like North Korea and Iran, and even our near-peer competitors, China and Russia. According to the U.S. Army's Space Missile Defense Command, 22 countries have ballistic missile capabilities, and it's likely nine of those nations have nuclear capabilities.
It is no secret, our global foes are making serious inroads developing next-generation ballistic missile capabilities. This is about more than just keeping up with the Joneses; this is about leading on missile defense.
So how do we lead on missile defense? We must start by maintaining and modernizing our upper tier missile defense system, which requires increased capabilities to match emerging threats. That means committing to developing the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) to ensure our warfighters and our allies have the most advanced kill vehicle capabilities to defend our homeland, deter our enemies and respond to growing exoatmospheric threats.
The Aegis Ashore, with the proven reliability of the SM-3, is the cornerstone of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) that is being implemented to address Iran's emerging ballistic missile threats. The latest site recently opened in Romania and Poland is next. But more are required to ensure regional security.
As Iran and North Korea continue to make headway in developing these capabilities, imminent threats from adversaries still remain.
China still poses a threat to the continental United States as it re-engineers its long-range ballistic missiles to carry nuclear warheads. Russia also continues to be a provoking force that, according to former Northern Command chief Adm. William Gortney, "could imperil our nation's existence."
Despite the surge of new ballistic missile threats across the globe and the expansion of US Aegis Ashore sites, why does the president's budget call for another reduction in the number of missiles procured in FY17? Why aren't we investing in more of our most reliable weapons systems to outfit our most critical assets?
With the current threats at hand, it may be time to reinstitute a fourth phase of the EPAA which should include opening additional Aegis Ashore sites, populating ships with more vertical launch system tubes, expanding THAAD resources, having a diversity of SM-3 and SM-6 interceptors, and improving radar technology, among others.
The Aegis Weapons System is one of the U.S. Navy's most reliable air defense missile systems compatible with over 60 naval destroyers and cruisers providing a full spectrum of defense capabilities which the warfighter relies on to respond to these imminent threats. An essential element of the Aegis Weapons System is a viable Standard Missile-6 (SM-6). Not only can the SM-6 intercept ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft, it can track down and destroy targets descending from the upper atmosphere at extreme speed when upgraded with sophisticated targeting software.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus stated before Congress earlier this year; "Standard Missile-6 provides theater and high value target area defense for the Fleet, and with Integrated Fire Control, has more than doubled its range in the counter-air mission." With four successful tests under their belts within the last year, no wonder the Navy has such faith in its abilities. While our adversaries and near-peer competitors are not shy about investing in next generation ballistic missile capabilities, the federal government is moving forward with a budget which stands to weaken our upper tier missile defense arsenal. Upper tier missile defense is our lifeline to address today and tomorrow's ballistic missile threats. Should we continue to downsize our arsenal of upper tier missile defense systems, we will inevitably leave our homeland and our allies more vulnerable to attack.
The administration and Congress must fully commit to ensuring the defense of our nation by putting the best weapons systems in the hands of our warfighters. The upper tier missile defense capabilities are exactly what we need. Underfunding these vital efforts could only prove to be costly mistakes down the road.
Lt. General Ralph Jodice is a retired 3-star Air Force command pilot with more than 3,500 flight hours, and commanded six times at multiple levels in the U.S. Air Force and NATO. A decorated flag officer, he was the NATO Combined Forces Air Component Commander during Operation Unified Protector, and served as the Defense Attaché at the American Embassy in Beijing, China.