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HUESSY: An unblinking eye toward the sky

The first step in protecting Americans is seeing the threat

- - Sunday, December 22, 2013

For years, opinion polls have shown that the American public has more confidence in our nation's military than in any other U.S. institution. However, what many Americans may be surprised to learn is that U.S. security and the safety of our troops is directly threatened by at least 6,500 ballistic missiles outside United States and NATO control. In addition, tens of thousands of shorter-range rockets are deployed by both rogue nations and their terrorist accomplices. Such regimes are also developing weapons — with mass-destruction warheads — that are more mobile and accurate.

The good news is that by the end of this year, the U.S. and its allies will have deployed nearly 2,000 missile interceptors capable of shooting down everything from short-range Hamas and Hezbollah rockets to long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles from North Korea and Iran.

Still, to keep pace with this growing threat, the United States and its allies have to not only enhance and improve our inventory of interceptors, but markedly increase the number and capability of our sensors and radars to detect threats from those who intend to harm Americans.

U.S. interests are not just to protect the American heartland from long-range missiles. Our interest in freedom of the seas and international trade forces us to keep the shipping choke points in Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf open, as well as to prevent crises from escalating unnecessarily into open conflict.

The civil war in Syria provides an apt example. A September CNN report noted that U.S. troops stand guard on a hillside overlooking one of Turkey's largest cities, scanning the skies for the threat of missiles fired from nearby Syria. "We're protecting against any tactical ballistic missile or rocket attack that may come from the country of Syria," said Lt. Col. John Dawber, commander of the Patriot missile battalion originating from Fort Sill, Okla.

Of course, the continued cooperation of our motivated adversaries in the Pacific and Middle East requires America to be on high alert. U.S. Adm. Samuel Locklear recently told Congress that during the past two years, North Korea has conducted a nuclear test, launched a long-range rocket into space and displayed at a military parade its road-mobile KN-08 missile with the potential to hit the U.S. mainland.

Critical to an understanding of the North Korean threat is that it has been a laboratory for the production of ballistic missiles for others, especially Iran. As such, Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, calls Iranian missiles a "rising threat" based on recent advances by Tehran in space launch and longer-range ballistic-missile developments.

According to recently retired commander of Strategic Command, Gen. Robert Kehler, a significant part of the U.S. response should be greater investment in sensors and radars — even in this austere budget environment.

The Air and Missile Defense S-Band Radar, for example, "provides wide-area volume search, tracking and ballistic-missile defense discrimination," which helps to protect "critical naval choke points." More is needed, though.

The existing Army/Navy Transportable Radar Surveillance system, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, is also a critical element in our defenses, and its speed and ability to discriminate and cope with salvos of adversary missiles is being improved. Currently, three of these radars are deployed in Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense batteries and five others stand alone in locations from Japan to Turkey. However, the original 18 that the agency planned to acquire have now been cut back to just 12, a number that is wholly insufficient.

Early-warning radars for the United States also need upgrading, especially as part of an East Coast missile-defense package that could defend against both maritime and intercontinental missile threats. To help with this task, one option could be the Sea-Based X-Band radar, which acquires, tracks and discriminates the flight characteristics of ballistic missiles.

Aegis cruisers and destroyers, which currently have Air and Missile Defense Radar-1 radar transmitters and MK-99 Fire Control Systems, are now regularly on patrol in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and western Pacific. The system provides overlapping sensor coverage, expands the missile-defense battle space, and complicates an enemy's ability to penetrate the defense system. Thus far, the Aegis radar, combined with the Standard Missile-3 interceptor, has hit various targets under different testing conditions. The radar has a range of more than 2,400 miles and is potentially useful for discriminating between warheads and decoys or debris.

With the passage of both a new budget and a defense-authorization bill, Congress is taking an important step toward addressing these critical missile-defense needs. The $22 billion that was added to defense is a good place to start.

As Congress completes its 2013 work and looks ahead to next year's budget, it must remember that the challenge is not just shooting down the missiles and rockets our adversaries are stockpiling by the thousands. It's finding them when they are launched and tracking them as they fly toward their targets.

Peter Huessy is president of GeoStrategic Analysis, based in Potomac.