A dilemma faced by Congress in its consideration of defense legislation is what balance to seek in funding both near-term and over-the-horizon technologies for the protection of the United States homeland, our armed forces overseas and our allies. The Senate and House Armed Services Committees have made a first cut on this issue, specifically with respect to funding of U.S. missile defense programs. Both panels have reduced funding for the Airborne Laser (ABL), as well as funding for a missile defense site and radar in central Europe. Such actions are wrongheaded and must be reversed.
The ABL is two years and $900 million away from demonstrating an operationally realistic shootdown of a ballistic missile.The near full-up platform, a spectacular Boeing 747, was recently on display at Andrews Air Force Base. The program has demonstrated critical combat capabilities, including the intensity and control of the laser. The laser needs to be integrated with the platform. An additional ground and airborne test are also necessary to get to the shootdown demonstration. Proposals to slow the project down have two consequences — the shootdown will be delayed significantly and it will cost more money. What is the point if demonstrating the technology is everyone's goal?
The promise of this technology has real-world consequences. The Iranian mullahs have threatened to rain missiles down on U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region as well as Saudi oilfields if we protect our forces there along with the sovereignty of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many media commentators have therefore concluded that the United States is better off eliminating all considerations of using military force even as we sustain attacks against our brave soldiers and diplomats in the region. (These are, ironically, many of the same folks who routinely sneer at positive missile defense developments.)
Given the short range of Iranian missiles that could be launched at U.S. forces and key oil sources in the Gulf, the deployment of the ABL, along with other important elements of U.S. and allied layered ballistic missile defenses, could provide a robust defense that would make the threats from Tehran more bluff than real. During the 1930s, the great British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, then a back-bench member of Parliament, pleaded for the Ministry of Defense to develop and deploy radar. The critics were quick to condemn Churchill, claiming the technology was unproven (most undeveloped technology is), and that it was too costly and would antagonize Herr Hitler.
Critics of ABL and other advanced missile defense technologies often use the same arguments. But the eventual deployment of radar saved England during the Battle of Britain and led to the eventual victory of the Allies over Italy, Germany and Japan. Failure to deploy the ABL and other critically needed missile defense elements could have an equally profound effect on world events. This includes giving what former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey calls the genocidal maniacs in Iran a free shot at threatening the vital Middle East theater.
This is also true with regard to proposed missile defense elements for Poland and the Czech Republic. Since the early House cuts to this program, two key NATO ministerial meetings have been held at which support for the proposed deployments was given, along with additional agreements between the Polish and U.S. governments which further move both countries towards a joint missile defense deployment. As Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, eloquently noted earlier this year during House debates on this matter, a crucial test of leadership is the ability to anticipate future threats and have the courage to lead one's colleagues to take such threats seriously. The Senate this past week took a step in the right direction by passing an amendment to the defense authorization bill principally authored by Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, calling for the deployment of a complementary and integrated missile defense against Iranian missiles — whether those missiles threaten Europe or the United States.
The vote was 90 to 5. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat — in whose state the United States is now deploying missiles to defend against North Korean rockets — voted no. She is apparently willing to defend Americans in San Francisco but not Americans in Berlin or Paris. Both Vermont senators, Democrat Patrick Leahy and Independent Bernie Sanders, voted no as well, despite their mutual fondness for the nuanced foreign-policy opinions of those on the continent.
Recent reports are that North Korea has shipped missiles and their associated launchers to Iran with ranges of 3,400 kilometers. The rockets have been displayed in Pyongyang but not in Tehran — yet. The suggestion by some in the intelligence community that no serious Iranian threat looms on the horizon is consistent with their erroneous mid-1990sassessment that similar North Korean missile threats were sufficiently far into the future to forestall any decisions to deploy preventive missile defenses. Just as appeasers of Adolf Hitler tried to prevent Britain from arming to defeat the Nazi totalitarianism of the 1930s, so too we have those who will kick down the road decisions to defend America and its allies from the new totalitarianism rising out of mullah-land in Iran.
Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis.