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Op-Ed: A robust missile defense against Russia and others is a vital shield for America

Streaking over the moon and Pacific Ocean, the Minuteman III missile of Glory Trip GT-222 lights the sky launched by the Air Force 576th Flight Test Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base during an unarmed test launch that occurred at 12:02 a.m. from the base northwest of Santa Barbara. The missile, equipped with a single-test reentry vehicle, traveled to 700 miles above the Earth and 4,200 miles to a test range near the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
April 19, 2018

It may be a spring for Putin in Moscow, but the chill of a Cold War Version 2.0 is in the air. This was clear at the Seventh Moscow Security Conference I spoke at, and in talks with the Russian nuclear and military experts. Buoyed by successes in Syria, Russia is seriously contemplating a military clash with the United States.

One hopes that cool heads prevail, and a conventional conflict – let alone a nuclear exchange between the two Cold War rivals – will not happen. The devastating arsenals on both sides, in excess of 1,500 strategic nuclear warheads each, are enough to destroy both countries and their allies several times over. And there are thousands of tactical nukes in the two countries’ arsenals.

“[The Russians] are thinking creatively and innovatively of using nuclear weapons in a different way to coerce the United States and our allies,” says Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at CSIS (the Center for Strategic International Studies). Experts are trying to ascertain who helped Kim Jong Un’s rapid advances in offensive missile capabilities.

However, a few missiles launched in anger – by North Korea, Russia, China and in the future possibly Iran or Pakistan – can be dealt with ballistic missile defenses. The U.S. deploys 44 Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs) in California and Alaska to counter the threat from Pyongyang.

The Trump Administration views missile defense as a multi-layer enterprise. In the Eastern hemisphere, the U.S. has deployed European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) AEGIS Ashore batteries of Standard Missile 3 (SM-3 – II A) interceptors. The EPAA includes radar, missile and fire control sites in Romania and Poland; a ballistic missile defense radar in Turkey; and command and control center in Germany. 

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The U.S. initially deployed the SM-3 sites in Romania and Poland to deal with a future threat from Iran. The Romanian site was brought online in 2016. However, the Polish base will not be finished until at least 2020 due to construction delays.

Thus, the U.S. missile defense is a work in progress, and a multi-tier work it is. Exoatmospheric Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD) is the most powerful long-range system around, but it needs to be integrated with AEGIS Ashore, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) and other systems. Eventually, new boost phase, space-based and laser-powered systems will complement what we have today.

GMD is the only system that protects the homeland from Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). It is the only domestically based system that intercepts missiles in space and doesn’t produce harmful nuclear fallout.

However, GMD is not foolproof, nor it is the silver bullet. It is one part of a broader approachThe recent test failures of the Aegis system demonstrate that no system is perfect, and that we need a layered missile defense shield that accounts for a diverse array of threats.

Today, the country needs protection from ballistic and cruise missiles more than ever since the end of the Cold War. As Russia enters an acute confrontation phase with the U.S., and is likely to increase proliferation of ICBM technology to America’s foes, and as Trump is about to meet Kim in May, it is clear that a more robust GBI system as a part of a multi-layer defense array is vital to defend the homeland.

In December 2017, President Trump announced that the United States would be deploying a layered missile defense system to defend the country against missile attacks.

Investment in such new technology is crucial, as missile defense is cutting edge – and expensive – technology. Congress and the Trump Administration are finally investing in the GMD system, after years of the Obama-era cuts in the program.

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Clearly, the GMD testing involved hitting increasingly complex targets. In a May 2017 test, a GBI successfully intercepted a target meant to mimic an ICBM in speed, range, decoys and countermeasures. That test earned the system an upgraded status by the Office of Director, Test and Evaluation, which concluded: “GMD has demonstrated capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from a small number of intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats.”

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) five-year contract, extended earlier this year, will require Boeing to “accelerate the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) development, design and delivery; emplace an additional 20 silos for Missile Field 4 (MF4) at Fort Greely, Alaska; and, fabricate and assemble an additional 20 Ground Based Interceptors tipped with RKVs for deployment to MF4.” The contract is expected to be completed by 2024.  Thus, the number of GBIs will go up from 44 to 64. The question is, will it be enough?

Moreover, a working and fully deployed GMD is a diplomatic trump card, which is particularly handy, as Trump is planning to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Investments in GMD make negotiations and a diplomatic settlement with North Korea more likely to succeed. GMD does not encourage U.S. aggression, much less a preemptive or preventive strike on North Korea. To the contrary: it strengthens U.S. deterrence and makes diplomacy and sanctions more likely to work. 

Congress is keeping the hand on the pulse of missile defense funding and deployment. On March 22, senior Pentagon officials briefed Congress on the Defense Department’s forthcoming Missile Defense Review.

The Trump Administration’s May 2017 budget request for Fiscal Year 2018 would have maintained a level of missile defense funding similar to that employed during the last years of the Obama Administration. This may not be sufficient.

In the wake of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests, however, Congress approved a White House reprogramming request that allocated an additional $368 million to missile defense spending – $249 million of which was directed to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

However, not everyone is convinced: In February, the New York Times published an editorial titled “The Dangerous Illusion of Missile Defense.” The editorial advanced the following arguments against missile defense, including the following: 

  • The percentage of failed tests suggests that missile defense isn’t reliable and effective; 
  • Missile defense is not a solution to the threats from Iran and North Korea;
  • Investments in missile defense are not cost-effective; and, 
  • Missile defense could encourage U.S. aggressive behavior if presidents believe that it is more effective than it actually is.  

Most of these arguments do not withstand the test of reality. The Times’ assessment of GMD stands in contrast to claims by top generals and other military professionals.  When asked by Sen. Deb Fischer, a Republican from Nebraska, about the editorial, Head of North American Aerospace Defense Command Lori Robinson responded: “I am 100 percent confident in my ability to defend the United States of America [against North Korean missiles].”

Unfortunately, the missile defense opponents, including the Times, have a long record of misguided hostility to missile defense generally, and GMD specifically. Unsurprisingly, the Times criticized the George W. Bush Administration for its investments in GMD while praising Obama’s cuts. Their assessment does not change no matter how much missile defense technology progresses. And this anti-defense stance applies to nuclear modernization, as well, not just to ground-based missile defense.

The Times and other missile defense opponents hold it to a standard no technology can meet.

Ariel Cohen, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council (atlanticcouncil.org), and Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics (CENRG) at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (iags.org). 

All opinion articles are the opinion of the author and not necessarily of American Military News. If you are interested in submitting an Op-Ed, please email [email protected]