- - Wednesday, May 10, 2017

As a young naval officer in the 1970s, the threats to our nation’s security were relatively simple and easy to comprehend. Countless Cold War-era novels and motion pictures reminded us of the threat from Soviet long-range ballistic missiles, and the omnipresent black and yellow “Fallout Shelter” signs, combined with our practiced ability to “duck and cover,” caused us to be ever cognizant of the significant looming nuclear danger.

Offensively, more missiles, more megatons, more warheads, triads and multiple re-entry vehicles were the answers. Defensively, “detente” and “mutual assured destruction” appeared to be the only solutions. World events and negotiated treaties held the threat from the Soviet Union at bay, and a watchful eye was poised to evaluate what threat China posed with its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

With changing times and the global superpower threat kept in check, world events forced attention on theater missile defense, and a wide range of sophisticated “mobile” systems were heavily invested in to address those threats. Geopolitics, system capabilities, and wide-ranging threats have brought us to the point where GBI, THAAD, EKV, RKV and “bullet hitting bullet” are familiar terms to anyone versed in the subject of missile defense.

Today’s reality is sobering. A global power exchange of ICBMs is unacceptable, albeit remote. But a post Sept. 11 world makes the threat from ICBM attack more likely from rogue or failed nations and terror-sponsored entities than superpowers. The tactics and strategies of the past, mutual nuclear posturing, de-escalation and negotiation, play a lesser role while the successful ability to intercept and defeat a single or small ICBM attack is paramount.

The key United States missile defense relies on a few dozen ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska. The capabilities of these systems have grown over the last two decades, but system performance and aging technology require that constant evolution continue. Moreover, recent events in North Korea and Iran demand that attention be paid to the very real and present dangers posed by these nations, their cooperation, and the groups they associate with.

Any national security strategist will opine that risk assessment is a product of threat assessment and vulnerability to that threat, and that threat is a function of capability and intent. It is not difficult to see that North Korea and Iran pose very dangerous threats, and that our current missile defense capability must continue to keep pace to mitigate the risk posed by these countries and possibly others.

Expansion and improvement to our interceptor capabilities is an investment that requires immediate attention. Success in Aegis system capabilities and Standard Missile intercept results must be incorporated into our current missile defense arsenal. Waiting for next-generation systems is not an option. Incorporating modularity, open architecture, radar advancements, interceptor communications and target discrimination are all investments that must be made now in redesigned kill vehicle improvements.

Missile defense was not a priority of the previous administration. Then-candidate Donald Trump opined about the need to improve the nation’s missile defense capabilities to meet the looming ballistic threat from North Korea and Iran. And while a nearly $20 trillion national debt must be contended with, President Trump remains committed to robust defense spending. The recently passed House omnibus bill provides for increased spending on SM-3 interceptors, but continued lack of specific commitment in the Congress to addressing the more immediate concerns of missile defense remains concerning.

Congress must take the lead in supporting quick and cost-effective improvements to our ground-based interceptor programs. The Missile Defense Agency’s plan to seek short-term kill vehicle redesign is a sound strategy in achieving cost effective, low-risk redress of the immediate ballistic missile threats facing our nation. We cannot afford, both with respect to national safety and national finances, to focus solely on next-generation capabilities and multiple-object kill technologies. We must leverage the advances, successes, technologies and investments we have made to date by redesigning the current exoatmospheric kill vehicle to achieve short-term mitigation of the impending ballistic missile threat. Redesigning our current kill vehicle capability guarantees a lowest-risk, cost-effective, and near-term solution to strengthening our missile defense capability and keeping America safe from ballistic missile attack.

The threat to the American people posed by ballistic missile proliferation and increasing capability is real and imminent. We must continue to invest in leading-edge technologies and next-generation capability, but we must also be prepared to quickly counter the immediate ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea, Iran and transnational terrorists. To do so, we must rapidly re-engineer and deploy a redesigned ground-based interceptor kill vehicle to keep the nation safe.

• Donald P. Loren is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for homeland security integration. He is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral who served in positions with the Chief of Naval Operations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

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