April 26, 2006 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense
In March 9 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering, the Director of the Missile Defense Agency, stated that his agency made history in 2004 by establishing a "limited defensive capability" for protecting the United States against ballistic missile attack. Congress, as it undertakes the task of drafting the fiscal year (FY) 2007 Defense Authorization bill, must recognize that this defense is very thin and needs to be strengthened. It can do so by making several significant changes in the missile defense budget, such as adding funds to accelerate the concurrent testing and operation program for the long-range missile defense interceptors in Alaska and California and to improve and expand the sea-based interceptors on the Navy's AEGIS ships. Looking to the future, Congress should direct the Agency to start serious work on placing missile defense interceptors in space.
A Limited Defense, an Expanding Threat
The threat to the U.S. from rogue states seeking nuclear weapons and improved ballistic missile capabilities is expanding. Iran has announced that it has begun enriching uranium, possibly for the purpose of building a nuclear weapon. This action is in open defiance of international obligations that require Iran to freeze its enrichment program. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to stonewall the six-nation talks designed to achieve its nuclear disarmament. Both Iran and North Korea continue to pursue ballistic missile delivery systems for such weapons. For example, North Korea is now estimated to possess more than 600 short-range SCUD-class missiles and as many as 200 medium-range No Dong missiles. It is also continuing development of longer-range missiles that could target U.S. territory in the future. These actions, among others, mean that the U.S. cannot afford to wait to defend itself.
In this context, Congress must understand that the "limited defensive capability" Obering referred to in his testimony is extremely limited indeed. According to Obering, the U.S. now has just nine Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors fielded in Alaska and two in California for possible use in defending U.S. territory against long-range missiles launched from the Korean Peninsula. It is at best uncertain whether these interceptors could counter an Iranian long-range missile aimed at the East Coast. Perhaps most importantly, additional testing of the GMD system is necessary to give military commanders confidence in its operational capabilities. Finally, Obering also admitted that the Navy has fewer than 10 Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor missiles aboard AEGIS class ships. By any reasonable measure, this is not a robust defense.
How to Strengthen Missile Defense Now
History dictated that the U.S. would have to start with a limited defense for countering the ballistic missile threat. This is because for 30 years (1972-2002) the U.S. observed the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the former Soviet Union that barred the development, testing, and deployment of effective defenses against ballistic missile attack. The negative impact of this policy of purposeful vulnerability cannot be overstated. Even following U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the Department of Defense proceeded along the limited paths of development and testing the ABM Treaty allowed.
Clearly, Congress cannot reverse the impact of the ABM Treaty in a single Defense Authorization bill. Nevertheless, it can take some immediate steps to ensure that the existing limited defense is expanded as rapidly as possible:
Congress should provide guidance to the Missile Defense Agency on the missile defense budget for the years after FY 2007 to push it to break free of the enduring effects of the ABM Treaty. Specifically, Congress should point toward a reallocation of resources within the roughly $9-billion-per-year missile defense budget to exploit the technological options that the ABM Treaty barred the U.S. from pursuing. Two priorities deserve special mention:
As a result of the ABM Treaty, U.S. missile defense capabilities lagged missile capabilities of potentially hostile states when President Bush took office in 2001. While the accelerated missile defense program has made up some ground in the intervening years, it still lags behind these foreign missile capabilities. The Bush Administration must finally break the missile defense program free from the enduring effects of the ABM Treaty. This means giving the missile defense interceptors already in the field and those soon to be fielded as much operational capability as possible. It also means moving missile defenses where they will be most effective, space. By adjusting missile defense funding for FY 2007 and making clear its intentions for future years, Congress can prod the Administration in this direction.
Baker Spring is F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.