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August 3, 2010

Why Missile Defense

By

Some arguments are worth repeating. Take missile defense. The basic justification for developing this weapon system has not changed much since President Reagan proposed it in 1983. But the threats have changed. In fact, the threats we face are more varied and are evolving at a faster rate than at any other time in our history. Ten years ago, for example, few people knew what an improvised explosive device was. Today, they are the weapon of choice for insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere around the world. Recent conflicts have also demonstrated the devastating effects of cyber and denial-of-service attacks; and more unsettled state actors are partnering with sub-groups to cause trouble. As the predictability of the kinds of threats we face has diminished, military planners have been forced to prepare to defend against virtually everything. Since no one would secure a home by locking all the windows but leaving the front door open, the U.S. shouldn’t choose to remain vulnerable to a ballistic missile attack – particularly since these weapons can be armed with a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon.

It only takes 30 minutes for a ballistic missile to reach U.S. shores from anywhere in the world. We would barely have time to lament our lack of missile defenses before an attacking weapon was upon us

It only takes 30 minutes for a ballistic missile to reach U.S. shores from anywhere in the world. We would barely have time to lament our lack of missile defenses before an attacking weapon was upon us. Since the enemy always “gets a vote,” U.S. leaders need only pay attention to what others are saying and doing to validate the need for a comprehensive missile defense system to protect Americans.

The Threats We Face

Iran will likely achieve nuclear status in the near future, and the world has limited visibility into their program and even less into their leaders’ intentions. The International Atomic Energy Agency is having difficulty developing a comprehensive picture of Iran’s nuclear program, but officials believe Iran may be working on affixing a nuclear warhead to one of its growing classes of ballistic missiles. Even the U.S. military estimates that Iran will be capable of fielding an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. Numbers tell the rest of the story. In just the past decade, the number of nuclear states around the globe has grown from six to nine. Meanwhile a total of 28 countries have ballistic missile capabilities. Some are rapidly improving their arsenals with help from other states. China, for example, has shown it is capable of targeting U.S. satellites with ballistic missiles and electromagnetic pulse warheads. In January 2007, China launched an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) at one of its own satellites. The Chinese referred to the test as an experiment and not a deliberate anti-satellite test. Nevertheless, the action proved Chinese capabilities and demonstrates their potential for growth

In just the past decade, the number of nuclear states around the globe has grown from six to nine. Meanwhile a total of 28 countries have ballistic missile capabilities.

North Korea has some 1,000 missiles and is selling them to other countries. It has tested at least 25 missiles with ranges of up to 1,200 miles. This means North Korean missiles are capable of reaching South Korea and Japan. Its leaders are also developing a new ICBM with a minimum range of 3,700 miles that could hit Alaska and some parts of Hawaii if it functioned at its full capacity. Judging by capabilities (missile arsenals) as well as intentions (official statements from world leaders), the need for a U.S. missile defense system is clear. Of course, missile defense offers more than protection of Americans at home and abroad. The purely defensive system also provides security assurance and comfort to friends and allies. Our investment in missile defense is what prevents others from building up their own arsenals and reduces their perceived need to acquire additional weapons. The United States today provides security for more than 30 countries around the world and thus prevents these nations from pursuing large missile programs of their own. As a result, the number of weapons throughout the world has decreased, which is a desirable outcome. The bottom line is that missile defense decreases the importance and utility of ballistic missiles. This dramatically limits their attractiveness to potential enemies, given that such an attack would more than likely fail.

What's Needed Here at Home

A comprehensive, multi-layered missile defense should be a priority. And the vast majority of Americans support the program. A poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation this past May reveals that 88 percent of the respondents believe that the federal government should field a system for countering ballistic missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction. However, many also mistakenly believe we already have what is needed to defeat a range of threats.

President Obama’s “phased adaptive approach” for missile defense has some merits but also has unnecessarily slowed the program while the threat has remained the same.

President Obama’s “phased adaptive approach” for missile defense has some merits but also has unnecessarily slowed the program while the threat has remained the same. Iran may be capable of launching a long-range missile by 2015, yet the U.S. missile defense program will not be capable of defeating this type of threat until 2020. The Department of Defense has requested $9.9 billion in the fiscal year 2011 budget for the missile defense program, with $8.4 billion of that going to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). One notable improvement is the $2.2 billion request for the sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system – an 11 percent increase over the previous year. While the MDA budget shows an increase over the previous year’s request, it still falls nearly $1 billion short of President Bush’s final request in fiscal year 2009. The administration’s plan for missile defense has four stages that continue through 2020. The program includes both land and sea-based interceptors. Ultimately, the fourth phase would move the system beyond regional defense and protect the entire U.S. homeland against an ICBM attack. Unfortunately, the administration has cut back on other integral parts of the comprehensive program. The number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California has been cut from 44 to 30, the planned “third site” for missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic was cancelled, and funding has been eliminated for space-based interceptors. For a truly effective and comprehensive system, the land, sea and air components must be strengthened. First, the administration should reinstate the original plan to field 44 ground-based midcourse defense interceptors in Alaska and California. As the number of countries that possess ballistic missiles grows alongside the size of many arsenals, additional interceptors are necessary. Congress should add $200 million to the missile defense budget to begin restoring the planned interceptors here in the U.S.

Iran may be capable of launching a long-range missile by 2015, yet the U.S. missile defense program will not be capable of defeating this type of threat until 2020.

Additional funding is also needed for the successful sea-based system. Congress should bolster the Aegis ballistic missile defense in 2011 to accelerate and expand both the development and procurement of the Aegis weapons system and the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) family of interceptors. One example involves funding smaller and lighter vehicles for the SM-3 interceptors. An optimal speed for the interceptor is six to seven kilometers per hour, which can best be achieved by using these lighter vehicles. This would ensure that the interceptors can protect larger areas and allow them to intercept missiles in the first stage of launch all while engaging missiles with the longest ranges. The complete lack of investment in space-based interceptors and minimal funding for space activities needs to be reversed. There are substantial benefits to a robust space-based system. The Airborne Laser program (which has already been proven successful at striking a missile in the first, or “boost,” phase) should be resurrected. This is important because during the boost phase, the missile is still over the enemy’s land. If intercepted at this point, it significantly reduces the risk of any spillover effects.

Indeed, as Lt. General (Ret.) Trey Obering has said, missile defense is similar to an insurance policy for the protection of all Americans – except, of course, it’s a much better investment. If, say, you get into a car accident, only then does your insurance help you.

But with missile defense, having a system in place could prevent an enemy attack from ever reaching Washington, New York, Dallas, Miami, Seattle or Los Angeles. It’s peace of mind worth investing in.

It’s also proof that old arguments are often worth repeating, particularly when – as in the case of missile defense – they are correct.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a Research Fellow for National Security Studies at the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Ripon Forum

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