A "kill vehicle" hurtled over the Pacific Ocean to intercept and
blow up a missile 1,800 miles and 25 minutes into its flight from
Alaska to California.
The military's Dec. 5 exercise, designed to simulate a ballistic
missile attack by North Korea or Iran, proved to be the latest
successful test of the missile defense system the government is
developing to protect America.
"It was the largest, most complex test we have ever done," the
head of the Missile Defense Agency, Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, told
reporters at the Pentagon afterward. The results, he added, "give
us great confidence."
Indeed. The military had shot down
test missiles in 37 of 47 previous attempts since 2001.
President-elect Barack Obama doubtless was paying attention.
While campaigning, he pledged to protect the nation and its allies
from weapons of mass destruction, including those delivered by
"In a world with nuclear weapons," candidate Obama said,
"America must continue efforts to defend against the mass
destruction of its citizens and our allies."
Americans should welcome that commitment. It's certainly in
keeping with our nation's 21st-century defense policy, which
rejects the Cold War strategy of "Mutual Assured Destruction" --
the theory that no enemy would dare a nuclear strike on the U.S.
for fear of massive retaliation.
But Obama hedged support for missile defense, saying he would
back a "pragmatic and cost-effective" system that "does not divert
resources from other national security priorities until we are
positive the technology will protect the American public."
And he broadly warned against the "weaponization" of space.
Once in the White House, President Obama will need to clear up
such ambiguities. Poland and other allies are watching. They want
to be sure of the new president's commitment to missile defense.
And Russia will continue to try to take advantage of
To dispel dangerous doubts, Obama should move quickly on his
promise to "spare no effort to protect Americans from the threats
posed by nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles." A robust missile
defense program should include:
- Dedicating 2 percent to 3 percent of the defense budget.
Candidate Obama appropriately called for rigorous testing.
Investing in testing is a bargain. Even a limited nuclear missile
attack would be catastrophic. It's worth this relatively small
investment to be able to shoot such weapons from the sky.
- Consistent development and testing. Testing can't follow
traditional acquisition procedures because missile defenses
actually are a complex "system of systems." As with a few other
weapons systems that first must be built (the Global Positioning
System was one), it's not possible to do full operational testing
before procurement. Defense officials will have to take incremental
- A "layered" approach. The basic hit-to-kill technology is a
success, as seen again Dec. 5. Yet candidate Obama questioned the
effectiveness of the program. Perhaps his skepticism stems from
viewing elements of the system in isolation. A layered defense --
with boost, midcourse and terminal phases -- makes for an effective
- Fielding space-based elements. Candidate Obama said he wouldn't
"weaponize" space, but the missiles he pledged to counter are space
weapons. Effective defense against space weapons requires some
defense components be mounted in space. An array of 1,000
space-based interceptors and replacements would cost less than $20
billion to build, operate and maintain over 20 years, according to
the Independent Working Group, an authoritative panel of experts in
related science, technology and national security.
- Cooperating with allies. Candidate Obama confirmed the wisdom
of an allied approach. America should continue to cooperate with
friends in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. President Obama should
implement existing agreements with the Czech Republic and Poland,
both NATO allies, to field radar and 10 ground-based interceptors
on their soil. By contrast, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's
proposed moratorium on missile defenses in Europe undermines NATO
If an enemy struck the United States or an ally with ballistic
missiles carrying weapons of mass destruction, the world would be
An American president who failed to do the utmost to field a
defense against such an attack would face the judgment of history
as well as his own people.
is F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the