The American Thinker | 6.15.15
Missile Threat | 6.16.15
By Alan W. Dowd
U.S. sailors are arriving in Romania to flip the switch on anew
missile-defense facility, the first of two
missile-defense sites scheduled to come online in Eastern Europe in the coming
years. One might expect advocates of missile defense to see this as
good news. However, it comes with an asterisk. Even as missile defense gains
support around the world—and understandably so, given the metastasizing missile
threat—it’s not gaining support where it arguably matters most.
Three decades ago, there were nine countries that fielded
ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32. Several of them are unstable (Pakistan
and Egypt) or unfriendly (Iran and North Korea) or both (Syria).
Because of the nature of their regimes—adjectives like
paranoid 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 relatively 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.
Earlier this year, Beijing estimated that North Korea
possesses 20 nuclear warheads—and could have 40 by 2016. Pentagon brass
recently assessed North Korea’s nuclear-capable KN-08 ICBM to be operational.
This is a regime that spasmodically tests nuclear weapons and warned in 2013 it
was prepared to launch “a preemptive nuclear attack” against the U.S. and South
The Pentagon reported in 2012
that Iran may be able to flight-test an ICBM by this year. Iran already has launch
sites for long-range missiles. But Iran’s missile reach is not limited to
land-based assets. In 2004, Pentagon officials confirmed that Iran
secretly test-fired a ballistic missile from a cargo ship. This is a regime
that is following North Korea’s road map to the nuclear club, that normalizes
terrorism into a basic government function, that threatens to wipe neighboring
countries off the face of the earth.
But if proliferation gives us reason to worry, two realities
offer reason for hope. The first is the record of missile defense in battle and
In battle, U.S. missile-defense assets intercepted nine
inbound Iraqi missiles in the early stages of the Iraq
War, shielding the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait from a
decapitation strike. Saudi Patriot batteries recently knocked down missiles
fired by Iranian-backed militia in Yemen.
Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system—relying on the same basic principles as
longer-range missile defense—intercepted 735 inbound threats and registered a
kill rate of nearly 90 percent during the most recent war with Hamas, Aviation
In testing, this
system of systems has scored successes on 66 of 82 hit-to-kill intercept
attempts since 2001—an 80-percent success rate. The Aegis sea-based system has
achieved 29 successful intercepts in 35 attempts. The ground-based interceptor (which
targets inbound threats near their highest point) has hit 9 of 17 intercept
attempts. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD, which targets
threats near the end of their flight trajectories) has scored a perfect 11 out
of 11 in testing.
The second reason for hope is the growing global architecture of missile
defenses. The operative word here is “global.” Twenty countries, plus the NATO
alliance, are part of the emerging international missile defense (IMD) coalition.
President Bill Clinton signed legislation that paved the way
for deployment of a missile-defense system, reflecting the emergence of a
national consensus on the issue. Thanks to that consensus, President George W.
Bush was able to begin deploying a layered system of missile defenses,
including ground-based interceptors, a chain-link fence of radars spanning the
globe, sea-based Aegis interceptors and theater-wide defenses. By 2008, NATO had endorsed U.S.
plans to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe, including Bush’s
proposal for permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and IMD radars in
the Czech Republic.
With a wary eye on North Korea, Japan deploys Aegis warships
and hosts IMD radars. South Korea fields Patriot batteries and Aegis warships, and
is edging toward purchasing a THAAD system.
Israel and the U.S. have collaborated on development of
missile defenses for decades. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States agreedin May to “a region-wide ballistic missile defense capability,” with Washington
promising technical assistance. The UAE recently became the first foreign
government to purchase a THAAD battery.
However, the IMD system’s technical successes and global
advances have occurred in spite of—rather than because of—President Barack
Unlike Clinton and Bush, Obama seems to view missile defense
not as a new tool in the arsenal, but as a bargaining chip. To mollify Moscow,
Obama unilaterally scrapped the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans for
NATO. Instead of planting permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and IMD
radars in the Czech Republic, Obama opted for missile-defense warships in the
Mediterranean and a scaled-back, land-based variant of the Aegis system, dubbed
“Aegis Ashore.” Obama’s missile-defense reversal gained nothing from Moscow andfracturedrelations within
NATO. The Czech Republic rejected Obama’s plans as “a consolation prize.” A
Polish defense official called Obama’s retreat “catastrophic.”
The Obama administration’s initial budget cut
overall missile-defense spending by 16 percent. The administration’s 2013
budget proposal hacked another $810 million from the Missile Defense Agency
(MDA). The president shelved the airborne laser and ultimatelyreneged on his own watered-down plans for Eastern Europe. The
president cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent, reduced
the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile-defense capabilities and
capped the number of U.S. ground-based interceptors at 30 instead of the
planned 44. (When Pyongyang started rattling nuclear sabers in 2013, the
to deploy those extra 14 interceptors in Alaska and California—interceptors
that would have been operational if Obama had simply followed the bipartisan plans
put in place before his presidency.) All told, missile-defense
funding has been slashed from $9 billion per year to $7.8 billion per year
Those cuts have consequences. The Navy deploys 33 ships
equipped with Aegis
missile defenses. By the end of 2016, the Navy will need 77 Aegis ships to
meet combatant commanders’ requests.
MDA has nowhere near the resources to meet that.
None of this should come as a surprise. During his 2008
campaign, Obama vowed,
“I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.” His staffmade it clear he would supportmissile defenses only “when the technology is proved to be workable.”
Critics of missile defense use words like “workable” and “proven” to set such a
high standard that anything less than a 100-percent intercept rate means the
system is “unproven” or “unworkable.” But if (when) an American or allied city is in
the crosshairs of an inbound missile, who would prefer a 0-percent chance of
intercepting the killer rocket—something guaranteed by not fully funding, not testing
and not deploying a missile shield—over an 80-percent or even 50-percent