The world has watched with bated breath as developments in relations with North Korea and Iran have emerged at a breakneck pace. The decisions made in recent weeks with regard to those two nations will likely have profound consequences as Washington attempts to mitigate the threat posed by their respective ballistic missile programs. While the path toward a solution may not be straightforward, diplomacy is a critical avenue for addressing these issues. Equally important, however, is maintaining strong support for a robust missile defense system capable of defending the nation to provide assurance for a well-made deal, or ensurance should diplomacy fail.
While the future of America’s diplomatic endeavors to curb or entirely eliminate North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs may be unclear, both nations will likely remain devoted to their ballistic missile programs for the foreseeable future.
Iran has been particularly vocal about maintaining its missile arsenal. In recent televised remarks, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated unequivocally that “limiting our missile work is a dream that will never come true.”
Although Iranian missiles currently top off at the medium range, an active space program could one day lead to an intercontinental ballistic missile a la Pyongyang. Indeed it was arguably North Korea’s new Hwasong-15 ICBM ― and its ability to strike any target in the U.S. ― which helped prompt the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Today there is only one system in place capable of defending the nation against ICBMs: the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD. Based in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, the GMD is made up of 44 ground-based interceptors topped with an exoatmospheric kill vehicle.
While the system has previously earned criticism, the GMD in recent years has been successful in testing against threat-representative targets in more realistic scenarios. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that fiscal 2017 was one of the GMD’s most successful years for results achieved. The GMD is proving to be a formidable capability to provide solid reassurance as the United States wades through difficult diplomatic waters, and it will only get more reliable as officials continue to make key investments.
Following North Korea’s missile-testing spree culminating in the test of Hwasong-15 on Nov. 28, 2017, the Trump administration and Congress wisely began to further invest in the nation’s only capability against ICBMs, the GMD. In recent months, the Missile Defense Agency received a $249 million reprogramming request and $11.5 billion in an omnibus bill. The bolstered funds will allow for an increase in the GMD’s capacity and reliability.
Support for missile defense should continue at this pace, even as the administration seeks diplomacy.
Sound defense policy demands solutions for the worst-case scenarios. Unchecked, nations possessing ICBMs have the ability to hold military and civilian targets at risk located in the homeland. Even in the most ideal conditions, both Iran and North Korea have a long history of reneging on international agreements. Indeed the most alarming scenario would be unconstrained nations in possession of nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them.
Missile defense is not a panacea, but it is one of the most critical pillars in America’s defense strategy. Along with economic pressure and diplomacy, the United States must fully utilize its considerable resources to ensure the country is safe from the threat of ballistic missiles. While the world remains hopeful for a diplomatic solution to a pressing threat, the devastation that could be caused by ballistic missiles is too great a risk to ignore. Time will tell if the Trump administration’s diplomatic gambits will pay off; however, it is crucial that the United States maintains a strong defensive capability in the face of global uncertainty.
Abel Romero is an analyst specializing in ballistic missile defense and nuclear security. He last served as the director of government relations at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and previously held positions with the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. House of Representatives. You can follow him on Twitter at @Abel_Romero_.