ASCF Report | 9.1.12
By Alan W. Dowd    

Three decades ago, there were nine countries that fielded ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32. Several of the countries in the growing ballistic-missile club are unstable or unfriendly. Pakistan and Egypt fall into the former category, while Syria, Iran and North Korea are not only unfriendly but also unstable. As the missile threat metastasizes, missile defense is gaining support around the world.

First, let’s look at the threat.

Because of the nature of their regimes—adjectives like paranoid, fatalistic, reckless and terrorist come to mind—North Korea and Iran are the most worrisome of the world’s missile threats. To be sure, other regimes have larger, more lethal arsenals, but those other regimes are rational and stable, which means the old rules of deterrence can keep them at bay. That may not be the case with a nuclear-armed Iran or an unraveling North Korea.

We know that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems for those weapons. In fact, Iran has carried out “covert ballistic missile tests and rocket launches, including testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload,” according to the British government. U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked the shipment of intermediate-range missiles from North Korea to Iran, giving Iran the ability to strike American allies and bases in Europe. Worse, the Defense Department estimates Iran could have an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015. But Iran’s missile reach is not limited to land-based assets. In 2004, high-level Pentagon officials confirmed that Iran secretly 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. As Lt. Gen. Henry Obering put it during his tenure as director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), “We should not assume that we have full understanding of ballistic missile activities around the world. We have been surprised in the past.”

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. Since 2009, North Korea has detonated a nuclear weapon, test-fired long-range missiles, torpedoed and sunk a South Korean ship in international waters, shelled a South Korean island and begun developing a road-mobile ICBM, which would allow the Kim Dynasty to hide its missile arsenal.

If proliferation gives us reason to worry, the global web of missile defenses offers reason for hope.  The operative word here is “global.” An international missile defense (IMD) coalition, for lack of a better term, has emerged to answer the looming missile threat.

  • The United States serves as the cornerstone and keystone of the IMD coalition. President Bill Clinton signed legislation that paved the way for deployment of a missile-defense system “as soon as technologically feasible.” By endorsing missile defense, Clinton reflected the emergence of a new national consensus on the issue. Thanks in part to that consensus, President George W. Bush was able to accelerate the program, deploying a layered system of missile defenses, including ground-based interceptors, a chain-link fence of radars spanning the globe, sea-based interceptors on Aegis warships, theater-wide defenses, 747s armed with lasers capable of killing missiles in their boost phase, and plans for ground-based interceptors in Poland and companion radars in the Czech Republic. Today, the U.S. deploys 30 ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska; two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries, with two more on the way; scores of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) batteries around the world; and 22 warships equipped with Aegis missile defenses, building toward a fleet of 32 Aegis ships by 2017. In addition, MDA is in the process of standing up data systems on the East Coast that will link to the ground-based interceptors, and there is growing support in Congress for deploying a bed of ground-based interceptors on the East coast, perhaps as soon as 2015.
  • Fittingly, Britain was the first ally to join the IMD coalition, agreeing in 2003 to upgrades of ground-based radar stations at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. Once used to scan the skies for Soviet bombers, the bases now peer into Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean borderlands, watching for accidental or rogue missile launches.
  • In 2008, NATO endorsed U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe, including Bush’s proposal for permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic. And in 2010, alliance leaders called missile defense “a core element of our collective defense.” Today, Aegis warships are pacing in the Mediterranean, and plans are in the works to deploy a land-based variant of the Aegis system in Eastern Europe.
  • With a wary eye on North Korea, Japan deploys missile-defense warships, hosts a powerful X-Band IMD radar and is co-developing the new interceptor missile for Aegis warships. Japanese Aegis-armed warships prowl international waters near North Korea as a hedge against another Pyongyang surprise, and discussions are underway for Japan to host another X-Band radar.
  • Australia is a charter member of the IMD coalition, signing a 25-year pact on missile defense cooperation in 2004.
  • South Korea’s missile defenses include Patriot batteries, Aegis warships and long-range radars—all courtesy of the U.S. Israel and the U.S. are preparing to share the Arrow anti-missile system with South Korea.
  • 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 system. 
  • Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman) has agreed to partner with the U.S. in deploying a layered missile-defense system, with ground- and sea-based components. These assets will be networked with U.S.-manned radars in Turkey, which will share data across the IMD architecture. Plus, the UAE recently became the first foreign government to purchase the THAAD system.

This global acceptance of missile defense—enfolding some three dozen nations—is nothing short of remarkable. After all, not long ago, missile defenses were considered too internationally destabilizing, too politically divisive, too financially expensive to deploy. But today, Reagan’s vision of a shield against madmen, mistakes or miscalculation—once derided at home and abroad as “Star Wars”—is shared by leaders on four continents.

In short, missile defense has gone mainstream, which makes it all the more perplexing that President Barack Obama has taken a cleaver to this essential piece of the national-security puzzle.

The Obama administration’s initial budget slashed overall missile-defense spending by 16 percent and ground-based missile defenses by 35 percent. Although the administration has increased investment in sea-based missile defenses, it capped the number of ground-based interceptors in the U.S. at 30 (instead of the planned 44), shelved the 747 airborne laser and reversed NATO’s missile-defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic announced that it was withdrawing from Obama’s scaled-down alternative system—a movable, non-permanent system dubbed “Aegis Ashore”—angrily rejecting Washington’s revised plans as “a consolation prize.” A Polish defense official called the decision “catastrophic.”

Some dismissed Poland’s reaction as paranoia. However, as the old saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. Just consider that Russian war games regularly involve simulated nuclear strikes against Poland. (Russia’s opposition to missile defense is a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say, it has more to do with Moscow’s inability to come to grips with the settled outcomes of the Cold War—and attendant loss of its vassal states in Eastern Europe—than it does with any real threat to Russian security. In fact, once upon a time, Vladimir Putin himself declared that the U.S. anti-missile system “does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation.”)

The administration’s 2013 budget proposal slashed another $810 million from MDA, with fresh cuts in funding for THAAD and the X-Band radar. Cuts in a time of fiscal crisis are necessary. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that while virtually everything else in the federal budget grows, the missile-defense program is shrinking.

While we’re on the subject of cost, protecting the U.S. from missile-armed madmen is not the cause of our fiscal woes. The U.S. invested a total of $141 billion on missile defense from FY1985 through FY2011. In comparison to the Pentagon’s budget ($662 billion in 2012), the size of big-ticket social programs (Medicare’s 2011 tab was $568 billion) or the overall federal budget ($3.7 trillion in 2012), the amount invested in missile defense is miniscule. Spread over 26 years, missile defense has cost $5.2 billion per year—a rounding error relative to other cost centers in the federal budget.

Still, the critics latch on to the system’s costs—and misses—as reason to downgrade missile defense. But just as the costs are relatively small, so are the number of missile-defense misses. In fact, this system of systems has scored successes on 54 of 68 hit-to-kill intercepts since 2001—79 percentof the time.

In other words, technology has finally caught up with Reagan’s farsighted vision—and so has the rest of the world. Rather than cutting missile defense, the White House should make the most of this fleeting moment when both the technological and geopolitical conditions are favorable.

*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.