Missile Defense in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation

Missile Defense in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation

Peter Huessy Winter 2009
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More than a quarter-century after President Ronald Reagan’s historic Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) speech in 1983, opposition to missile defense deployments remains surprisingly strong. Curiously, those voices grow even stronger in opposition to a missile defense system that would protect the U.S. homeland (as opposed to U.S. forces overseas or our allies) against a nuclear attack.

Arguments of the Opposition

The most common argument is that “deterrence works.” The theory is that deterrence is more than adequate to prevent an adversary from using ballistic missiles, primarily because all missiles have a “return address.” Any use of such missiles would invite instant retaliation, and since no nation wishes to be destroyed, the threat of retaliation serves as a deterrent. This theory worked during the Cold War; Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) ensured that the United States and the Soviet Union coordinated carefully to prevent a nuclear holocaust. Whether mutual deterrence works with America’s foes today, such as Iran or North Korea, is questionable, however. Indeed, this is a point recently underscored by the Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton.

The second most common refrain is that the U.S. perception of threats, particularly those arising from states with twin programs of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is distorted. This view posits that the perception of strategic threats is driven, not by reality, but by Washington’s desire to “meddle” overseas. We are thus led to believe that aggressive states such as Iran and North Korea are acquiring weapons of mass destruction to deter the rogue United States from launching an unprovoked attack.

This argument ignores, for example, that China uses its missiles to engage in bullying and intimidation, such as launching missiles over Taiwan in 2007 as a means to influence politics in the breakaway peninsula. It ignores that North Korea uses its missiles to threaten South Korea, an area it still seeks to dominate. It further ignores that Iran’s missiles give it cover for its proxy terror operations.

The final argument that critics make is that we should simply forgo the deployment of such defenses unless they are 100 percent effective. Working under the assumption that one nuclear weapon might strike the U.S. even if a dozen or more are successfully intercepted, it would better to forgo deployment altogether. In other words, critics argue that, “no missile defense deployment is better than some missile defense.”

Uzi Rubin, the father of the Israeli missile defense programs, describes the above arguments as “fortune cookie” assessments of security policy. Instead of thoughtful analysis, one gets snippy sound bites that mostly blame America. The reality is that, now more than ever, missile defense is critical to U.S. national security.

Missile Defense, Present & Future

Today, the U.S. has over 1,000 interceptors deployed worldwide to defend against missiles of all ranges, including 30 such interceptors deployed in Alaska and California to protect the homeland from long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. Currently, both land- and sea-based theater defenses can only deal with threats of missiles up to around 2,000 kilometers, although current estimates suggest that Iran has a missile reach of 2,400 to 2,600 kilometers.

Rather than increasing our homeland missile defenses, Washington is reducing them. The current negotiations with Moscow on nuclear weapons reductions may now include agreements on the scope and geographical boundaries on current and future missile defense deployments.

To this end, the White House recently terminated the planned deployments of ground-based interceptors in Poland and an associated radar in the Czech Republic. It has substituted these interceptors for a system that primarily relies upon one technology, the Aegis Standard Missile, to deal with missile threats in the 2,000 kilometer range or beyond, while our deployed THAAD (Theatre High Altitude Area Defense) and Patriot defenses can deal with shorter-range missile threats from Iran and the Middle East. Aegis is now sea-based, but eventually will be moved ashore, and over time could defend Europe from more advanced missile threats if the proposed technology is successful.

While the Aegis Standard Missile is a great missile defense technology, Washington risks leaving NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the Eastern United States vulnerable to attacks by long-range Iranian rockets for several years. The scrapped Poland-based, two-stage, ground-based interceptor was initially intended to protect the Eastern United States from long-range missiles. The Aegis Standard Missile might ultimately provide that kind of protection, but probably not before 2020.

Future Needs

As the Pentagon looks toward the future, it will need to make several strategic assessments. First, it will need to determine what kinds of missiles it might need to intercept. Second, it will need to determine the origin of those missiles. Third, it will need to determine the strategic aims of the states that could fire those missiles.

The Iranians are developing missiles with ranges in excess of 2,400 kilometers, and are seeking to develop an intercontinental missile capability, which the United States Air Force predicts will be completed by 2015. Tehran also has successfully tested a two-stage rocket that placed a satellite in orbit. This is a common precursor to developing an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capability.

North Korea now lags behind Iran in domestic rocket capabilities. Its last test of a long-range rocket only successfully completed two stages. If the third stage were to work, Pyongyang could land a 300 to 500 kilogram warhead on the United States. And while the West might experience relief over these apparent failures, it should be noted that Iranian technicians have been identified at North Korean launch facilities, marking a strong symbiotic relationship and the potential for technical cooperation. The Russians and Chinese also assist both rocket programs.

In the case of Iran, current assessments indicate that the Mullahs are developing nuclear devices to fit onto its 2,000 to 2,400 kilometer range Shahab missiles. This is a development of the utmost significance. The Islamic Republic could fit a small nuclear device onto a short or medium range missile, and launch it from a freighter just 300 kilometers off the coast of North Carolina, for example. Indeed, as Investors Business Daily reports, “the Iranians have tested a sophisticated nuclear warhead design that lets them pack a nuclear warhead into a smaller package able to fit nicely on the Shahab-3 and other Iranian missiles.”

Analysts are also concerned about the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) attack. Such an attack would involve detonating a nuclear device 20 to 70 miles above a major metropolitan area. The blast would destroy every computer and electronic device within sight of the blast. This would destroy refrigerators, cars, phones, and more. It would, in effect, set the city back more than one hundred years, technologically speaking, and effectively destroy its economy. The ripple effect of just one EMP attack, both through economic and technological mayhem, could cripple the rest of the country.

The conventional wisdom is that Iran does not have the technology to launch an EMP attack on the U.S. However, the EMP Commission, chartered by Congress earlier this decade, judged that such an attack was very possible. Indeed, Iran tested a Scud-type missile off of a barge in the Caspian Sea in the mid 1990s. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) also conducted a test off the coast of Hawaii in recent years to prove to a skeptical intelligence community that it could be done. Even as far back as 1998, the Commission on Ballistic Missile Threats to the United States concluded that an EMP type attack ranked among the more likely missile threats to the United States.

Defending Against the Threat

While the U.S. currently has the technological capability to protect our costal regions from shorter-range attacks, such as from a freighter, to do so would require many more platforms. Systems such as the Aegis, the THAAD, and Patriot have proven to be effective in this capacity. But our current inventory needs to be expanded, as sufficient deployments around the country would deprive other regions from protection. Enhancement of the long-range interceptors deployed in Alaska and California must also be part of any defense package that seeks to deal with this threat, since an EMP threat can come from Scuds or ICBMs. As such, the U.S. Congress and the Administration should accelerate the acquisition and deployment of additional missile defense systems, as part of a global and layered capability to protect the U.S. and its allies.

In the absence of such defenses, North Korea and Iran or even Russia and China, will find it easier to blackmail, coerce, or bully the U.S. or its allies. U.S. military power is not the reason we are being threatened by the likes of Pyongyang and Tehran. It is that their terrorist and hegemonic goals can only succeed if American power is overcome. As Jeffrey Kuhner, President of the Edmund Burke Institute, wrote in The Washington Times:

Moscow and Peking have not abandoned their rivalry with the West… they are part of an alliance that aims to curtail and undermine American power. They have provided… support to Stalinist North Korea… They have sold vital missile and nuclear technology to Iran’s apocalyptic mullahs. The are constantly obstructing the global war against terror.”

Responding to the Critics

It is remarkable that after nearly half a century, even as the threats have gathered, critics of missile defense continue to oppose its deployment. They are wedded to the ambiguous strategy of “engagement and negotiations” with our enemies, primarily because they view U.S. policies as the root of the problem—most prominently represented by our liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq. In their view, if the United States is coerced into “staying at home,” all the better.

The consequences of such a policy are grave. With no missile defenses for the U.S. homeland, we can be blackmailed successfully in any confrontation with a state that has long-range missiles in its possession. For example, we might be powerless to confront North Korea if it chose to resort to aggression against South Korea.

How should the U.S. prepare for this scenario? Taking no precautions will almost certainly embolden an aggressive actor like North Korea. But, a preemptive attack is also fraught with danger. Such an attack could leave Los Angeles and Pyongyang in ashes.

The answer lies in the deployment of effective missile defenses in any theater. Effective missile defenses give the President and the Pentagon the ability to strike launch sites in North Korea, for example, without necessarily sparking a wider conflict. More to the point, such defenses could also intercept North Korean rockets against our forces in the South China Sea, the Sea of Japan, South Korea, and Japan, for example.

To protect the homeland, our Navy and Coast Guard also have to help to shore up our defenses, although that task is not easy, given the extent of our coastline and maritime environment. General Henry Obering, the retired MDA Director, says an initial investment of $3 to $5 billion would allow us to protect our southern and eastern flanks from a “scud in a tub” threat through the use of the aforementioned THAAD, Patriot, and Aegis systems.

The Common Defense

The Constitution calls upon us to “provide for the common defense.” A stronger missile defense will do just that, particularly as dangerous states, such as Iran and North Korea, build nuclear weapons fixed atop ballistic missiles. The warning signs are obvious and the dangers continue to grow.

Peter Huessy is a Senior Defense Consultant Associate at the National Defense University Foundation (NDUF) and President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense and national security consulting business.

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