Military Officer | 10.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd

Not long ago, missile defense was derided by its critics as “Star Wars.” But advances in technology and the proliferation of long-range missilery have made missile defense an essential piece of the West’s security puzzle.

As evidence, just consider how missile defense has maintained strong bipartisan support in the White House and Congress for more than a decade. Or consider NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which makes missile defense a central part of NATO’s mission.

In short, missile defense has gone mainstream. 

Threatening Skies
The growing acceptance of missile defense is largely a function of the growing threat posed by missile-armed rogues. Three decades ago, there were nine countries that possessed ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32.[i] Several of them are unfriendly or unstable. Iran, North Korea and Syria fall into the former category, Pakistan and Egypt into the latter.

With their twin terror programs that seek to match rockets with nukes, North Korea and Iran are the most worrisome.

Iran is developing nuclear weapons and acquiring delivery systems for those weapons. The trove of diplomatic cables illicitly shared with WikiLeaks reveals that U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked the delivery of 19 intermediate range missiles from North Korea to Iran.[ii] The missiles give Iran the ability to strike as far away as Berlin.

Of course, Iran’s widening missile reach is not only Europe’s problem. With the successful launch of the Safir space vehicle in 2009, “Iran demonstrated technologies that are directly applicable to the development of ICBMs,” according to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).[iii] In fact, the Defense Intelligence Agency has estimated Iran could have an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015. Worse, as Lt.Gen. Henry Obering ominously observed during his tenure as MDA director, “We should not assume that we have full understanding of ballistic missile activities around the world. We have been surprised in the past.”[iv]

North Korea was one of those unwelcome surprises, stunning the world with long-range missile tests in the 1990s and nuclear tests in the 2000s. Concluding that Pyongyang is within five years of deploying a missile capable of striking the continental United States, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned in January 2011 that North Korea “is becoming a direct threat to the United States.”[v]

In a word, the oceans can no longer protect us from these threats. In fact, the oceans may even spawn the threats. In 2004, high-level Pentagon officials confirmed reports that an unnamed Middle Eastern nation test-fired a ballistic missile from a cargo ship. Hiding a Scud-type missile and launcher below decks, the ship set out to sea and then transformed into a floating launch pad, peeling back the deck and firing the missile, before reconfiguring itself into a nondescript cargo ship.[vi]

The incident happened in the 1990s, and the unnamed nation was Iran.

Around the World
Yet if proliferation gives us reason to worry, the global web of missile defenses offers reason for hope. The operative word here is “global.”

To be sure, the missile-defense movement is led by the United States, but it is gathering followers and supporters around the world. This international missile defense (IMD) coalition, for lack of a better term, stretches from the United States, to Japan and Australia, to Israel and Europe:

  • Lt.Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, director of MDA, reports that the United States now has 30 active ground-based interceptors (GBI). In addition, MDA is in the process of standing up communications and data systems on the East Coast that will link to the GBIs, “thus improving the defense of the eastern United States against ICBM threats,” according to O’Reilly.[vii] Along with the GBI beds at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and Fort Greely, Alaska, the U.S. now deploys 21 warships equipped with Aegis missile defenses, building toward 32 Aegis-equipped ships by 2013.[viii] The U.S. has activated two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries and has deployed scores of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) batteries around the world.
  • With North Korea just next door, Japan is deadly serious about missile defense. Japan has deployed four destroyers equipped with missile-defense assets, hosts a powerful X-band radar and is co-developing the new SM-3 Block IIA interceptor missile for Aegis warships.[ix]
  • The U.S. and Australia signed a 25-year pact on missile defense cooperation in 2004.
  • Although not officially connected to the IMD architecture, South Korea’s missile defenses include Patriot batteries, Aegis warships and long-range radars—all courtesy of the U.S.[x]
  • Israel and the U.S. have collaborated on development, testing and deployment of the Arrow anti-missile system for many years. In 2008, the U.S. installed a radar station in Israel to support the IMD architecture.[xi] And in April 2011, Israel’s Iron Dome system, a defense against short-range rocketry, deflected enemy rockets in battle.
  • Related, it pays to recall that a PAC-3 intercepted inbound Iraqi missiles in the early stages of the Iraq War, shielding the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait from a decapitation strike.[xii] Elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in the process of beefing up their missile defenses.[xiii]
  • Finally, radar stations in Britain and Greenland form an essential part of the global network of missile defenses.   

Worth the Price?
That brings us back to NATO. In 2002, NATO began studying the feasibility of a regional missile-defense system. By 2006, the alliance concluded that a NATO-wide missile defense was a viable option.[xiv] In 2008, NATO endorsed U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe, including permanent GBIs, as a “substantial contribution to the protection of allies from long-range ballistic missiles.”[xv] In 2009, NATO declared it was “deeply concerned” about Iran’s “nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”[xvi] And in 2010, alliance leaders called missile defense “a core element of our collective defense.”[xvii]

The Obama administration came into office proposing a slightly scaled-down version of the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans for Europe. Instead of planting GBIs in Poland and GBI-support radars in the Czech Republic, the Obama administration chose to deploy more modest missile-defense assets in Europe. This so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) is tasking Aegis warships to the Mediterranean and will deploy land-based variants of the Aegis system (dubbed “Aegis Ashore”) in Eastern Europe. Plans are in place for Aegis Ashore sites in Romania by 2015 and in Poland by 2018.[xviii] In fact, Romania and the U.S. agreed in May to base the missiles near the southern city of Caracal.[xix] Along with sea-based Aegis assets, these sites will link with existing missile-defense assets in Europe and North America and, according to President Obama, “augment our current defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles from Iran targeted against the United States.”[xx]

Hopes in Washington that a less ambitious, less permanent system would mollify Moscow have not borne fruit. With Russian unease in mind, NATO’s new Strategic Concept takes pains to emphasize that “NATO poses no threat to Russia.”[xxi] The feeling is not exactly mutual. If Russia’s cyber-attacks on NATO member Estonia and mugging of NATO aspirant Georgia didn’t get the message across, then its 2010 military doctrine should. Among “the main external military dangers” identified by the Russian government in the document are “the creation and deployment of strategic missile defense systems.”[xxii]

That’s a far cry from what Moscow was saying in 2001-02, when Washington notified the Russian government of America’s intentions to build a defense against rogue missile threats. At the time, Vladimir Putin, then president of Russia and now prime minister, said Washington’s decision “does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation.”[xxiii]

But old habits—and decades of distrust—die hard. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev now warns that deployment of NATO-wide missile defenses could trigger a “scenario that throws us back into the Cold War era.”[xxiv]

Of course, the missile defenses planned for Europe could never defend against Russia’s massive, sophisticated arsenal, and the Kremlin knows it. As Gates noted in early 2011, the new system “poses no challenge to the large Russian nuclear arsenal.”[xxv]

What’s really at work here is that Moscow clings to the view that Eastern Europe is Russia’s sphere of interest, which means any NATO-wide missile defense—limited or large, mobile or permanent, Obama’s or Bush’s—would cause heartburn in Russia. In hopes of limiting misunderstandings, NATO openly discussed missile-defense plans with Russia, proposing “two independent systems that cooperate—a NATO system and a Russian system—each responsible for protection of its territory but capable of cooperation [and] data exchange,” as NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen explains.[xxvi]

But Moscow remains obdurate, insisting that any joint system not point NATO’s missile-tracking sensors into Russian territory and that NATO trust Russia to intercept inbound missiles flying through Russian airspace.[xxvii] To its credit, NATO is not willing to outsource the defense of allied territory to Russia.

The costs of missile defense are not just diplomatic, of course.

The U.S invested $132.6 billion on missile defense from FY1985 to FY2010—almost $100 billion of that since FY2000.[xxviii] To be sure, the return on investment is difficult to quantify, but this much we know: Missile defenses have successfully protected troops in battle[xxix] and influenced our adversaries’ “perception of the economic and political cost they must incur to pursue ballistic missile technologies,” as Gen. James Cartwright observed during his stint leading Strategic Command. “While missile defense as a defensive shield is important, its value as a dissuasive force or deterrent is proving far greater.”[xxx]

To be sure, missile defense has failed tests from time to time. But since 2001, this system of systems has scored successes on 47 of 59 hit-to-kill intercepts, or 79 percent of the time. Especially noteworthy are the Aegis system’s 22 intercepts in 25 attempts.[xxxi]

Still, the critics latch on to the system’s misses and costs as reason to downgrade missile defense. While it would be wasteful to deploy a Potemkin missile defense, it seems equally irresponsible to delay deployment until the system can guarantee 100-percent success—a standard so high that “failure” is inevitable.

Mistakes, Madmen, Miscalculations
In 1961, President Kennedy warned that “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles…capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”

As the number of missile-wielding states grows and as the nuclear club expands, the likelihood of a missile being unleashed against the American people or their allies—whether by mistake, miscalculation or a madman—also grows.

[i] Arms Control Association. Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories, September 2007, http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/missiles.

[ii] Christopher Cavas, “No Confirmation of Iran Missile Threat,” DefenseNews, December 2, 2010.

[iii] MDA, “The Threat,” http://www.mda.mil/system/threat.html

[iv] Remarks before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, April 30, 2008.

[v] MDA, The Threat; Elisabeth Bumiller and David Sanger, “Gates warns of North Korea missile threat to U.S.,” New York Times, January 11, 2011.

[vi] “Missile Defense,” The Washington Times, August 26, 2004, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2004/aug/26/20040826-112559-5666r/print/.

[vii] Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, Statement before the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee, March 31, 2011.

[viii] MDA, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense.

[ix] Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, Statement before the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee,
March 31, 2011; MDA, International Cooperation.

[x] Yonhap News, “S. Korea to complete building own missile defense system by 2015,” April 12, 2015; S. JUNG SUNG-KI, “Korea Launches 2nd Aegis Destroyer,” DefenseNews, November 14, 2010.

[xi] Crai Whitlock, “U.S. nears key step in European defense shield against Iranian missiles,” Washington Post, August 1, 2010.

[xii] Henry Schuster, “Iraqi missile targeted coalition HQ during war,” CNN, May 29, 2003.

[xiii] Robert Burns, “U.S. quietly expanding defense ties with Saudis, Associated Press, May 19, 2011; AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, "Pentagon Proposes Sale of THAAD to UAE," September 13 2010.

[xiv] NATO, Missile Defense, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_49635.htm?selectedLocale=en.

[xv] NATO, BucharestSummit Declaration, April 3, 2008.

[xvi] NATO, Strasbourg/Kehl Summit Declaration, April 4, 2009.

[xvii] NATO, Strategic Concept, November 19, 2010, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_68580.html.

[xviii] Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, Statement before the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee, March 31, 2011.

[xix] Thom Shankler and Ellen Barry, “U.S. and Romania move on missile plan,” New York Times, May 3, 2011.

[xx] Letter to the US Senate on Missile Defense and New START, December 18, 2010, http://www.america.gov/st/texttrans-english/2010/December/20101220112111su0.6327565.html.

[xxi] NATO, Strategic Concept, November 19, 2010, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_68580.html.

[xxii] The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, 2010

[xxiii] BBC News, “U.S. welcomes Putin's missile pledge,” December 14, 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1710249.stm.

[xxiv] Maria Antanova, “Medvedev warns of cold war over missile defense,” AFP, May 18, 2011.

[xxv] Wall Street Journal, “U.S. holds out prospect of limited missile defense cooperation with Russia,” March 21, 2011.

[xxvi] AFP, “NATO to Russia: Cooperate on Missile Defense,” May 19, 2011.

[xxvii] Stephen Fidler, “Russia Rebuffed on Missile Offer,” Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2010.

[xxviii] MDA, Historical Funding for MDA FY85-10.

[xxix] Henry Schuster, “Iraqi missile targeted coalition HQ during war,” CNN, May 29, 2003.

[xxx] MDA, The Threat; James Cartwright, Statement before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 28, 2007.

[xxxi] MDA, Ballistic Missile Defense Intercept Flight Test Record, May 11, 2011.