Time For a 21st Century Missile Defense
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Time For a 21st Century Missile Defense


Over the last few days two separate events have underscored once again the challenge the United States and various nations face from the growing threat of missile proliferation.

Last Friday, a test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), an important part of America’s missile defense system to protect the U.S. homeland failed at intercepting its target. A short statement from the Department of Defense explained “Program officials will conduct an extensive review to determine the cause or causes of any anomalies which may have prevented a successful intercept.”

To add insult to injury, a new report, authored by DOD’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center, makes some stark predictions concerning the growing challenge ballistic and cruise missiles posse. The report, entitled “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat” notes that “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.” If Tehran were to develop a nuclear weapon and eventually place it on an ICBM — combined with North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile programs — the United States and its allies would face tough strategic challenges, none of which are easily solvable.

Certainly missile technology and proliferation is not a new problem. Since the days of World War II, military experts have looked for ways to mitigate the awesome power of such technology. Combined with the prospect that such arms could be equipped with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), looking for ways to diminish such threats has only intensified as such technology has advanced and spread.

Yet, missiles defenses, despite billions of dollars, are still imperfect — and likely always will be. Think about what one is asking such defenses to do. You literally are attempting to hit a “bullet with bullet.” If your goal is to intercept a non-conventional nuclear tipped missiles, in order to be effective, you need a 100 percent kill ratio. If not, your nation could suffer the fate of an atomic strike. Just one nuclear warhead of even a small yield has the potential to impact the lives of millions of people. Against a nuclear tipped weapon, missile defense technology bears the burden of needing to be perfect. Relying on technological perfection, as we can all attest to in our daily lives, is an almost impossible request.

So, what to do? Well, for starters, we need to look at missile interceptors as part of a multi-pronged strategy when it comes to missile defense. No smart military strategy solely relies on one technology, or defensive system, to secure itself. Missile defense needs to be developed beyond the classic interceptor model. Throwing our hands in the air and saying missile defense is too hard or to expensive is simply not an answer — not in light of the challenges to international security missiles (conventional or armed with WMDs) will create in the near future.

The good news is that there are practical, cost effective solutions when it comes to missile defense that merit the strongest of considerations. In an interview I conducted with Roger Cliff of the RAND Corporation last year when detailing China’s “carrier-killer” missile he explained that the “complicated ‘kill chain’ provides a number of opportunities to defeat the attack.  For example, over-the-horizon radars used to detect ships can be jammed, spoofed, or destroyed; smoke and other obscurants can be deployed when an imagery satellite, which follows a predictable orbit, is passing over a formation of ships; the mid-course updates can be jammed; and when the missile locks on to the target its seeker can be jammed or spoofed. Actually intercepting the missile is probably the most difficult thing to do. ”

To be clear, Cliff was only talking about one particular scenario, U.S. naval vessels defending against an anti-ship missile.  However, such a line of argument, that missile defenses can encompass all sorts of technology and tactics is a key point.

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, U.S. Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Gen. Mark Welsh explained that “we will defeat missiles with electronic warfare.” Broadening our minds when it comes to how to defend against the growing challenge of missiles is something defense planners must consider in the coming years. Bearing in mind that missiles are in most cases much cheaper to produce than advanced interceptors, combined with budgetary pressures on military outlays in many nations, “outside of the box” thinking is required.

There is also another potential tool in dealing with missile technology:  the employment of cyber weapons. If a virus or malware could be developed to damage targeting systems or disable a  missile before launch, the reliance on expensive interceptors could be lessened to an extent. But one must be cautious — there is always the danger that missile defense systems could also be open to cyber attack as well.

As missile technology proliferates to more and more states and even various non-state actors, America and nations around the world will be confronted with stark choices on how to defend themselves. In an era of sequestration and declining defense budgets, Washington has an opportunity to demonstrate a multi-pronged strategy to deal with this growing challenge and provide leadership in this important defensive realm. While I support current missile defenses efforts such as AEGIS, PAC-3, THAAD, and others, new thinking is needed to defend the American homeland, but also U.S. allies in Asia and beyond. In the coming years, the threat of missile proliferation will only grow — so must our thinking on this critical issue as well.

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