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Missile Defense is Once Again Under Attack

By Peter Huessy
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Today, missile defense is under attack. This is not a new thing, however. Opponents tried to eliminate funding for ballistic missile defense when Ronald Reagan was President, sneeringly calling it "Star Wars" to denote how foolish they thought the idea to be.

Under President Bill Clinton, defenses against long-range missiles were zeroed out in his first defense budget, along with nearly 40 percent of defenses against rockets of shorter range.

After eight years, despite a new legislative requirement to deploy a missile defense for the continental United States, President Clinton decided not to go forward with a missile defense system to defend the U.S. population. In the 2000 presidential campaign, the Democratic Party platform warned about "ill-conceived" missile defenses, warning about a new arms race should they be pursued.

The critics no doubt thought they had won the policy battle.

But no, the fight was just being joined. In 2001, his first year in office, President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the ABM Treaty, the 1972 Cold War era agreement with the Soviet Union whereby the United States agreed not to build a missile defense system for the country.

The critics' reaction? They had a collective stroke. They warned such a move would end "arms control" and ignite another arms race. These critics had said the same thing in 1983, too, when President Reagan proposed the two-track approach of simultaneously modernizing our nuclear deterrent, developing missile defenses, and pursuing major reductions in nuclear weapons.

Similarly, after President Bush shed the ABM Treaty and its detailed restrictions on missile defenses he then signed an arms control agreement with Russia in 2002 that reduced deployed nuclear warheads by a record 67 percent.

At the same time, President Bush pushed for the deployment of a multilateral, layered, global missile defense that consisted of nearly two dozen elements including radars, space-based sensors, and interceptors. And he worked to secure the cooperation of our allies in and out of NATO, especially Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan and Israel.

In 2008, at the end of President Bush's two terms, when all the tests were added up since the program began in 1983, there were more than 50 intercept tests that were successful. Missile defense worked.

Some 25 countries worldwide had become partners with the United States in ballistic missile defense developments and deployments. By the middle of this decade, if current acquisition plans continue, the United States and its allies will have in their inventory well over 1,500 interceptors of all kinds, exactly what the U.S. military combat commanders insist they need to provide for both our security and deterrence.

But just as missile defense has become a normal everyday part of our security strategy, the critics have come back seeking to curtail this work.

New attacks call missile defense a "scam." Some claim it just "cannot work." Others say no country will launch a ballistic missile against the United States because once we know where it originates, we will retaliate and obliterate the offending country. Even others claim we are building a "shield" only so we can better use our "swords," the implication being missile defense is no defense at all.

Is missile defense flawless? No. There are a number of technical challenges. For example, long-range missile warheads once in outer space could also carry what are known as decoy warheads. They could fool midcourse interceptors because of the difficulty in outer space of telling the difference between the real warhead and the fake ones. North Korea and Iran have not yet developed such a capability but critics assume they will. They thus want to eliminate the initial U.S. missile defenses that do not yet fully discriminate the real warheads from the decoys but which can deal with the current threats.

Can the United States build such defenses against future, enhanced threats? Yes. Decoys deploy only after the missile upon which they sit has burned out. From launch to burn out is called the boost phase. So the boost phase interceptor must be in a location near enough to the launch and fast enough to impact the enemy missile early in its flight.

A ship-borne interceptor, for example, with sufficient speed, could intercept such missiles and avoid the decoy problem. Or an interceptor could be launched from orbiting satellites in space. Better yet, interceptors could be launched from platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles or manned combat aircraft such as the F-15 or F-22.

And they have the added benefit of dealing with threats from our maritime regions that currently are not covered.

Missile defense critics have repeatedly been proven wrong over their 30 years of efforts to stop such defenses. For example, one prominent critic, a favorite of the media, said Iran could not construct multi-stage missiles or solid fuel missiles. Staged rockets allow a missile to reach intercontinental range; solid fuel allows a missile to be ready for launch at any time. Only days after his report, Iran launched missiles proving the assessment wrong.

Do these critics want to protect America but with the "right defense"? You be the judge. In 30 years of nay saying, two proposals have been put forward. One top critic proposed we defend against North Korean missiles by having the Russians build a missile defense system in Vladivostok, Russia! Another critic proposed a Rube Goldberg drone system, without the range, payload and endurance needed.

Most others take a novel approach. As one top analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists proclaimed "No defense is better than any defense"!

Iran seeks nuclear weapons and has made considerable progress on ballistic missiles, now having an offensive rocket inventory in the thousands. They support, finance and arm terror groups. They have transferred rockets to Hamas, Hezbollah and to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

We face missile defense challenges, for sure. But critics have an obligation beyond denigrating the progress made to date. For example, in just three years, Israel deployed the new "Iron Dome", which has now shot down 80 percent of the rockets it engaged. Hamas launched some 200 rockets from Gaza in March. America is now a partner in further Iron Dome system deployments.

That is real missile defense. It works. Yes, it needs improvement. But missile defense "avoids a rush to war." It helps diplomacy. It complicates the life of attackers and terrorists. And it saves lives. In every way, missile defense is part of that Constitutional requirement to "Provide for the Common Defense."

Peter Huessy, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is President of GeoStrategic Analysis and the senior defense consultant at the Air Force Association. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

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