Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The twin nuclear and missile threats from Iran and North Korea have transformed the missile defense debate. It is no longer “should we deploy,” but “how should we deploy?” Policy-makers face a tough decision: How much to invest in some protection now, vs. future, complimentary technologies that offer enhanced protection?

In missile defense, as in finance, the best way to cover risks is not to “put all your eggs in one basket.” Instead, assemble a “balanced, diversified portfolio” of short, medium- and long-term technologies that cover the range of risks. In missile defense, current assets are being fielded, such as the Aegis/Standard Missile-3, initially deployed as an air defense weapon, but now upgraded to be a sea-based missile defense. Another is THAAD, the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense system capable of providing terminal missile defenses for U.S. forces in a regional conflict. And the Alaska and California-based Ground-based Interceptor system (GBI) provides an initial defense for the continental United States against long range rockets.

Each has limits. The sea-based interceptor is limited by its shipboard launch canister. THAAD will always cover a limited area. And GBI is a fixed-site system that covers chiefly Northeast Asia threats.

Future assets like the Airborne Laser (ABL) and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) offer complementary capabilities. ABL, a chemical laser mounted in a 747, requires further technological work to become operational. KEI, a very fast interceptor launched from land or sea, is a solvable engineering challenge. More futuristic capabilities, chiefly in the realm of space-based assets, require engineering successes, and, most of all, a policy commitment to extend interceptors into space.

How “far off” will depend on “when” we decide to move forward. For example, both Polaris and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles were developed in the mid-1950s by the late Air Force Gen. Bernard Schriever in a time frame previously thought undoable. Both technologies have served us well, as the sea- and land-based legs of the U.S. nuclear triad have remained the bed rock upon which U.S. nuclear deterrence rests.

So, today, choosing the right missile defense balance is complicated. Most critics claim only systems that reach perfection should be considered for deployment. For example, many argued that defenses such as the early Patriot and GBI should not be deployed because they have limitations and are not panaceas. (Ironically, these same critics resort repeatedly to reliance on arms control, which does not exactly have a perfect record.)

For example, even as early Patriot action in the 1991 Gulf War resulted in the shootdown of more than 30 percent of all Iraqi Scuds, critics argued the system should not be built. It is true the Patriot deployments were indeed rushed to the Gulf on an emergency basis. In addition, the original technology was not configured for missile intercepts but for airplanes. In part, this was due to congressional prohibitions of missile defense upgrades for the Patriot. Despite these limits, the Patriot was of enormous benefit: It kept the allied coalition together. Today, the currently upgraded Patriot has already protected scores of Americans and coalition forces in the Gulf.

So, too, with missile defenses protecting the American heartland. The GBI systems in California and Alaska, now give some protection from North Korean-launched rockets. But critics charge the system has not been perfected and should be scrapped or delayed. Do they prefer to be naked to possible aggression? Others argue we should have deployed only a system compliant with the ABM treaty (now defunct), which actually prohibited such a defense of the American heartland.

Others argue that the GBI, which intercepts a rocket high above the Earth’s surface, is less effective than a boost-phase system — striking at a rocket in its early stages when it is slow, hot and big. In part this is true, but the systems to get there, such as an upgraded Aegis or KEI or ABL, are not yet in the inventory. There also remains issues of how close to an adversaries’s launch area such a system must be.

The Bush administration rightly decided to move quickly to deploy an available shield, even as we seek on an ongoing basis to make it more effective. President Bush concluded leaving the U.S. totally unprotected was simply not an option, although one congressional critic, Rep. Rush Holt, said deploying no defenses at all was the best option.

So, what’s the right way to think about missile defenses today? Again the analogy from the world of finance comes in handy. First, you need a long-range “investment strategy” based on a “balanced portfolio” of assets.

Second, you resist the temptation to “unbalance?” your investment strategy by seeing in every test, whether successful or not, a benchmark from which all missile defense decisions should be made. And third, just as in finance, you steer clear of those who tell you, “if there is not a silver bullet, don’t buy anything.”

As the U.S. now faces imminent threats from North Korean rockets, we should count our lucky stars that we also have an operational missile defense available to protect the American people. To that all I can say is, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Peter Huessy is president of GeoStrategic Analysis.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide

Sponsored Stories