President-elect Donald Trump’s views on national security have drawn concern from scores of foreign policy and national security practitioners, as well as many of us who research and write about these issues (see some of my concerns here, here and here). One area, happily, where he left little room for concern, at least during the campaign, is missile defense.
Noting that “our ballistic missile defense capability has been degraded at the very moment the U.S. and its allies are facing a heightened missile threat from states like Iran and North Korea,” Trump vowed during the campaign “to develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system” and “rebuild the key tools of missile defense.”
Given the metastasizing missile threats facing America and its allies, this should be a priority for the new administration and the new Congress.
Iran and North Korea top the missile-threat list. To be sure, other regimes have larger, more lethal arsenals, but those other regimes are relatively rational and stable, which means the old rules of deterrence can keep them at bay. That may not be the case with Iran and North Korea.
North Korea has detonated two nuclear devices and conducted at least 22 missile tests this year. In 2015, we learned that North Korea had produced enough nuclear material for 20 nuclear warheads. According to weapons experts, North Korea’s September nuclear-weapons test suggests “progress towards developing a miniaturized nuclear warhead.” All told, since 2006 Pyongyang has conducted five nuclear tests; satellite launches (suggesting a threshold ICBM capability); multiple SCUD, short-range, and medium-range missile tests; and test-firings of submarine-launched missiles. And now, weapons experts believe there’s a strong possibility that North Korea’s two missile tests in October were tests of ICBMs—not medium-range missiles, as originally thought.
Even if North Korea wasn’t testing ICBMs, Western weapons experts conclude that North Korea’s ICBMs will “reach operational status early in the next decade—perhaps within five years,” as the Washington Post reports.
“What’s more concerning is not an individual test or two individual tests, it’s that they’re approaching their missile development in a very pragmatic way,” satellite-imagery analyst Joseph Bermudez tells the Post. “They are testing, and they are testing often,” he explains. “This is the way you really learn how to develop a ballistic missile, and that’s what worries me.”
In 2015 and again this year, Iran tested missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons—in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Iran appears to be focusing on precision-guided missiles with a range of 1,250 miles—enough to strike U.S. allies and bases in Southeast Europe, Turkey, Israel, and across Southwest Asia. In addition, Iran is modifying its Sajjil missile, which will extend its missile reach to 2,200 miles, bringing most of Europe within range.
Following Pyongyang’s road map to the nuclear club, Iran was developing its nuclear capabilities surreptitiously until 2002, when dissident groups revealed Iran’s outlaw nuclear-weapons program by exposing sites in Natanz and Arak. In 2009, a secret nuclear facility was discovered in the mountains near Qom. In 2010, the IAEA revealed evidence of attempts by the Iranian military to develop a nuclear warhead. In 2011, the IAEA concluded that Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.” When it was suspected in 2013 that Iran conducted tests for nuclear-bomb triggers in Parchin, the issue was not just papered over, but quite literally paved over. In 2014, U.S. agencies accused Iran of illegally acquiring components to aid in the production of weapons-grade plutonium.
Despite this record, President Barack Obama brokered a deal with Tehran that allowed the mullahs to gain access to international markets in exchange for little more than a vague promise that they would delay going nuclear for a few years. As Sen. Bob Menendez puts it, “We have gone from preventing Iran having a nuclear ability to managing it.”
Tehran has conducted at least four missile tests—all prohibited by UN resolutions—since signing the nuclear deal. This is a regime that normalizes terrorism into a basic government function and threatens to wipe neighboring countries off the face of the earth.
All of this explains why Iran’s neighbors are erecting missile defenses at breakneck speed.
Israel has developed a sophisticated, layered defense against missiles, including the Iron Dome system, David’s Sling system, and Arrow anti-missile system. Israel also hosts an X-Band radar that allows the U.S. to track missile threats and relay telemetry to various elements of America’s missile defense system. The Iron Dome system intercepted 735 inbound targets and registered a kill rate of nearly 90 percent during the most recent war in Gaza, Aviation Week reports.
Turkey and Qatar host X-Band radar systems. The UAE was the first foreign government to purchase the U.S. terminal high altitude air defense system (THAAD). Oman was next (in 2013). And Qatar and Saudi Arabia announced plans in 2015 to purchase THAAD systems.
Saudi Arabia, which already deploys a number of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-missile batteries, is considering purchasing Aegis missile defense systems. Kuwait deploys a number of PAC-3 batteries. The Kuwaitis, like the Israelis, know the importance of missile defense from firsthand experience: A PAC-3 intercepted inbound Iraqi missiles in the early stages of the Iraq War, shielding the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait from a decapitation strike.
Not surprisingly, North Korea’s neighbors are strengthening their missile defenses as well.
Lawmakers in Guam asked for a rotational THAAD deployment to be made permanent, and the Pentagon agreed this year. Pentagon officials also convinced Seoul in July to allow deployment of a THAAD anti-missile system. Immediately after the U.S. election, Republic of Korea officials announced they would move ahead with the THAAD deployment. This adds yet another layer of protection to South Korea, which already fields Patriot batteries, Aegis warships, and long-range missile-tracking radars. (According to South Korean officials, in a post-election phone call, Trump walked back some of his campaign comments suggesting South Korea should fend for itself, reassuring President Park Geun-hye, “We will be steadfast and strong with respect to working with you to protect against the instability in North Korea.”)
Japan deploys six Aegis ships (eight by 2020), hosts two X-Band radars, and co-developed with the U.S. a new interceptor missile for Aegis ships. In June, South Korea joined the U.S. and Japan for the trio’s first-ever joint missile defense exercises off the coast of Hawaii.
NATO officially endorsed Washington’s efforts to construct what might be called an international missile defense system in 2008, calling for a “NATO-wide missile defense architecture” that will extend “coverage to all Allied territory and populations.” Toward that end, the U.S., Poland, and the Czech Republic—NATO allies all—agreed during the administration of President George W. Bush to the deployment of a bed of ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland and supporting radar elements in Czech territory.
But in a naïve bid to placate Moscow, the Obama administration unilaterally reversed those plans soon after entering office, leaving Poland and the Czech Republic out on a limb. Instead of robust missile defenses, Obama proposed missile defense warships in the Mediterranean and a scaled-back, land-based variant of the Aegis system dubbed “Aegis Ashore.” The Czech Republic rejected Obama’s plans as “a consolation prize.” A Polish official called Obama’s retreat “catastrophic.”
Annual spending on missile defense has fallen under Obama from $9 billion when he entered office to just $8.3 billion as he prepares to leave. In fact, during his presidency, as missile threats proliferated, missile defense spending dipped as low as $7.6 billion (in 2014). The president shelved the airborne laser, reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile defense capabilities, and capped the number of U.S. ground-based interceptors at 30 instead of the planned 44.
By way of comparison, missile defense spending climbed from $2.8 billion to $4.8 billion during the Clinton administration (a healthy 71-percent increase), and it jumped from $4.8 billion to as high as $9.4 billion during the Bush administration (a 95-percent spike).
Obama’s cuts had real consequences. The Navy deploys 33 ships equipped with Aegis missile defenses but needs 77 to meet combatant commanders’ requests. When Pyongyang started rattling nuclear sabers in 2013, the administration scrambled to jumpstart plans to deploy those extra 14 interceptors in Alaska and California—interceptors that would have been operational if Obama had simply followed the bipartisan plans put in place before his presidency.
Defensive and Dissuasive
As people of faith, we should keep in mind that government exists to protect innocents and preserve order. Missile defense contributes to both of these legitimate functions of government. Because we live in a world teeming with threats and bending—careening—toward disorder, governments must take steps to shield and protect innocents, to promote stability, to deter those who can be deterred, and to neutralize those who cannot.
As the editors of Providence argued in their thoughtful statement on faith and foreign policy, “Christians have erred by holding the state to the same standard as the church or the individual, resulting in pacifism.” Governments are expected to do certain things individuals aren’t expected to do—and arguably shouldn’t do certain things individuals should do. A government that turned the other cheek when attacked would be conquered by its foes, exposing its people to harm. A government that put away the sword—and the shield—would invite aggression, thus leaving innocents defenseless.
Without question, defending against rogue missile attack costs money. Critics always latch on to the system’s costs (and misses) as reason to downgrade or kill missile defense.
On the issue of costs, protecting the U.S. from accidental launches and missile-armed madmen is not the cause of our fiscal woes. The U.S. has invested a total of $181.5 billion on missile defense since FY85. In comparison to the Pentagon’s budget (about $579 billion in 2016), the size of big-ticket social programs (Medicare’s 2015 tab was $632 billion) or the overall federal budget (around $3.8 trillion in 2016), the amount invested in missile defense is a rounding error. Spread over 32 years, missile defense has cost $5.6 billion annually.
To be sure, the return on investment is difficult to quantify, but this much we know: Missile defenses have successfully protected troops in battle and influenced our adversaries’ “perception of the economic and political cost they must incur to pursue ballistic missile technologies,” as Gen. James Cartwright observed during his stint leading Strategic Command. “While missile defense as a defensive shield is important, its value as a dissuasive force or deterrent is proving far greater.”
As to effectiveness, nothing made by man works 100 percent of the time. But it’s worth noting that in testing, this system of systems has scored successes on 74 of 91 hit-to-kill intercepts since 2001—an 81-percent success rate. The question critics of missile defense must answer is this: If—when—an American city is in the crosshairs of an Iranian or North Korean missile (many of our allies already are), would they prefer an 80-percent chance or even 50-50 chance of intercepting the killer rocket, or a 0-percent chance—something guaranteed by not fully funding, not testing, and not deploying a missile shield?
Photo Credit: A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched on April 26, 2007 from the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70) in the Pacific Ocean, during a joint Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Navy ballistic missile flight test. Approximately three minutes later, the SM-3 intercepted a unitary (non-separating) ballistic missile threat target. The test was designed to show the capability of the ship and its crew to conduct ballistic missile defense and at the same time defend herself. U.S. Navy photo (RELEASED).