While the United States prepares to defend against next-generation hypersonic weapons, it must remain vigilant against the threat posed by an old foe: ballistic missiles.
Case in point – on Jan. 8, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps fired at least a dozen Fateh-110 and Qiam-1 ballistic missiles at a base in Ain al-Asad and another in Erbil, destroying several buildings and causing 34 U.S. soldiers to be hospitalized for traumatic brain injuries. While the Patriot System would likely have prevented the damage and injuries, none were deployed at either base. In response to the growing threat of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, U.S. partners and allies in the region had rushed to acquire Patriot and other U.S.-made missile defense systems. As a result, the U.S. couldn’t field enough missile defense intercept systems to protect all of its own forces and installations in the region.
However, it would be a mistake to rush-order missile defense systems to the Middle East and lose sight of the global threat environment. On Dec. 31, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said his country no longer felt bound by a self-declared moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, and that North Korea “should more actively push forward the project for developing strategic weapons.” By that, he almost certainly meant resuming tests of North Korea’s newest intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Hwasong-14 and -15, both of which can likely reach the continental U.S.
As an Alaskan who worked hard to bring the Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) Program to Fort Greely in the early 1990s, I applaud the Trump Administration for pushing to install 20 new interceptors at this arsenal, and I am confident of our ability to prevent North Korea from launching a surprise attack on the U.S. or our allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
But the existing inventory of homeland missile defense system is insufficient. While the installations at Fort Greely and Vandenberg Air Force Base defend against missiles approaching from the Pacific Ocean or the Arctic, these offer less protection for those living east of the Rockies, where sea-borne launches off the Eastern Seaboard or Gulf of Mexico pose a credible threat.
Unfortunately, the gap in America’s missile defense umbrella is likely to grow.
Over the last 20 years, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has invested significant resources in developing the most sophisticated, layered, and successful ballistic missile defense capability in the world. A critical part of this system is what engineers call the “kill vehicle”—the component that is boosted into the upper atmosphere, where it intercepts and destroys the enemy’s missile.
In 2016, with our nation’s adversaries developing increasingly sophisticated missiles capable of delivering nuclear, chemical, biological, or conventional warheads over longer distances, the MDA greenlit an effort to replace the existing “kill vehicle.” The Replacement Kill Vehicle (RKV) Program set out to design a more reliable, cost-effective, and easier to produce component that was projected to go into production by 2020. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts and fewer test opportunities, the program was cut by the Department of Defense.
Understanding the need to improve homeland defense against the growing threat of ICBMs, the Pentagon subsequently announced a program to develop the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI), which promises to be much more than an enhanced version of the current GBI Program. But the NGI Program is not expected to come online until 2026 at the earliest, with some estimating it won’t be in operation until 2032.
That leaves a 12-year gap as the threat environment continues to worsen. It falls on Congress and the DOD to ensure our focus on future threats doesn’t come at the expense of those we face today.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Current missile defense systems, such as the Patriot, the GBI, or the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, which uses the SM-3, are field-tested, ready now, and some of the most sophisticated programs in the world. The SM-3 Block Interceptor, for example, which defeats short- to medium-range ballistic missiles, is deployed both at sea and ashore around the world, and has dozens of successful intercepts. There is no reason it could not be adopted to fill the gap.
It is time for Eastern Governors, and Adjutant Generals that sit in their cabinets, to request a threat brief, seek a solution, and demand funding. Viable missile defense technologies have already been developed, with millions of dollars having already been spent on research and testing. At a time when our leaders are looking for ways to stretch defense dollars further, it makes sense to use the capable technology we have already developed and paid for while we wait for new technologies to come online. To do otherwise would be to impose an unnecessary tradeoff between short-term security and future benefit, and would deprive Americans of the strength of our arms and the right to live free of fear.
Mead Treadwell, Lieutenant Governor of Alaska from 2010-2014, is a founding member of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, which has networked think-tanks and defense experts in several nations to advance technologies to deter a missile attack on the United States.
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