Commentary

October 23, 2013

Missile Defense: An old idea uniquely suited for today’s global threats

Claude Berube
U.S. Navy Academy

Recent satellite imagery suggests that North Korea has greatly expanded its uranium enrichment capabilities. The nation just promised to launch more long-range rockets “soon.” And, reportedly, labs in Pyongyang are hard at work developing nuclear-armed missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
With the North Korean threat apparently mounting, it’s essential for the United States to continue investing in missile defense.

Missile shield technologies first gained attention in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan proposed a bold endeavor called the Strategic Defense Initiative. At the time, critics famously dismissed the prospect of intercepting incoming missiles as a “Star Wars” fantasy.

Although the technology didn’t exist, Reagan’s concept was sound, therefore it quickly spawned a wave of development projects.

During the first Gulf War, the United States unveiled one of these technologies with the Patriot missile system. With Patriot batteries in Israel and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. military was able to eliminate 70 percent of the scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein.

Today, American missile defense systems continue to keep America safe, reassure our allies, and calm global tensions.

This past spring, for instance, when North Korea announced its decision to unilaterally nullify the 1953 armistice and threatened to attack its southern neighbor, the United States deployed a Navy destroyer equipped with the advanced “Aegis” anti-missile system. The move helped quiet the region, stifling further provocations by the North and preventing the South from taking any action of its own.

Recent tests have shown that technological progress continues apace. In May, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and sailors aboard the U.S. Navy’s USS Lake Erie engaged and destroyed a short-range ballistic missile that was launched from Hawaii over the Pacific Ocean. This was the Missile Defense Agency’s 59th successful intercept in 74 tests since it debuted the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense in 2001.
Despite these strides – and the growing threats we face – missile defense is on the chopping block. In its 2014 budget request, the Obama Administration proposed cutting the Pentagon’s missile defense budget by about 6 percent.

These planned cuts are particularly surprising given that the Obama administration has also just announced a new joint anti-missile initiative with key allies across the Atlantic. The European Phased Adaptive Approach is expected to incorporate new detection and destruction techniques to keep our European allies safe from rogue missile threats.

These cuts will undermine the development of this system. Indeed, just this March, American defense officials canceled the final phase of another Europe-based missile defense initiative citing budget constraints.

We’ve made tremendous progress since Ronald Reagan first announced the Strategic Defense Initiative. Now is no time to choke off funding for these promising technologies. America must continue to invest in these systems to counter the growth missile threat presented by North Korea and other dangerous regimes.

Editor’s note: Berube, the author of “The Aden Effect” (Naval Institute Press, October 2012), teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was a 2004 Brookings Institution LEGIS Fellow and a 2010 Maritime Security Studies Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. The views are his own and not those of the Department of the Navy.




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