May 10, 2000

May 10, 2000 | Commentary on Missile Defense

A Better Missile Defense

Washington is having the wrong missile-defense debate. Supporters and opponents of President Clinton's proposed national missile defense have been squaring off over testing, timetables and tensions with Russia. Lost in the fray is any discussion of a more fundamental question: Will the president's system -- a single ground-based site in Alaska -- provide the best protection for the country?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. A ground-based system, no matter where it is built, is not the best option. For starters, it is expensive, with an estimated cost for deploying and operating the system as high as $30 billion. It is also time-consuming, requiring at least five years to deploy the first 20 interceptors and two more years to increase that count to the president's desired 100. Waiting until 2007 to field a missile defense gives North Korea and other rogue states too much time to refine their technologies.

Nor would the ground-based system touted by the president be able to protect all 50 states from the most likely types of attack. An Alaskan site might be able to intercept a North Korean Taepo-Dong before it struck Hawaii, but destroying an Iranian missile now in development before it reached New England would be impossible. And with its fixed location, a ground-based site would offer no protection against ballistic missiles launched at American troops overseas or U.S. allies.

Perhaps the most glaring deficiency of a ground-based system is its inability to shoot down missiles until they've reached the end of what is called the "mid-course phase" of flight, when they are directly overhead and traveling more than 15,000 miles per hour. This part of a missile's flight occurs well after decoys or multiple warheads have been released, reducing the chances of finding and destroying the target. Even if a successful hit is made, there is the danger of fallout from any chemical, biological or nuclear payload the warhead was carrying.

If a ground-based system were the only option available, such risks might be acceptable. But there is an alternative: a sea-based missile defense based on technology already used by the U.S. Navy. No less than the chief of naval operations himself, Adm. Jay Johnson, recently warned that relying on a ground-based defense alone "would not be in the long-term interests of our country." He urged Defense Secretary William Cohen to add a sea-based component to make the president's proposed missile defense more effective.

The cornerstone of a sea-based defense is the Navy's Aegis defense system, created two decades ago to protect the U.S. fleet from aircraft and cruise missiles. An upgraded Aegis system that includes space-based sensors to help detect launches could track and destroy missiles targeted at the United States, its allies, or troops in the field.

Aegis is already being upgraded as part of the Navy Theater-Wide (NTW) program, which Phillip E. Coyle, the Pentagon's director of operational testing and evaluation, praises as "technically solid." NTW will provide U.S. troops and allies protection against shorter-range missiles, but it can do more. The Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization has said NTW can be reconfigured to target long-range missiles. Indeed, the Aegis radar successfully tracked North Korea's Taepo-Dong during its most recent test flight.

A blue-ribbon study panel headed by Amb. Henry Cooper, the former Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, released a report last year showing that an enhanced NTW system could be ready for deployment earlier (in three to four years) and at a lower cost ($8 billion) than a ground-based option. Eventually, 650 interceptors could be deployed on the 22 Aegis cruisers already patrolling the seas. Combined with the constellation of space-based sensors, this would create a highly mobile missile defense covering almost 70 percent of the earth's surface.

A sea-based defense also could be positioned close to regional "hot spots," providing multiple opportunities to intercept attacking missiles in flight. Using tracking data relayed directly to interceptors launched from the Aegis cruisers, such a defense could destroy missiles in their "ascent phase," thereby enlarging the protection area.

Given its inherent limitations, even a perfected ground-based missile defense will never provide the necessary protection. A sea-based system, by contrast, can defend against the missile threats the United States will face in the near term -- and it can do so faster and for less money. That's the debate Washington should be having.

Baker Spring is a research fellow in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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