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Credible Missile Defenses Needed

SOURCE: AP/Ahn Young-joon

South Korean Army soldiers board a military truck during a military exercise against a possible attack by North Korea on June 8, 2009. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has deployed credible missile defense systems in response to the threat of North Korean missile tests.

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Missile defense theologians are exploiting North Korea’s growing bellicosity and its nuclear and ballistic missile tests to gripe about the Obama administration’s missile defense budget. Their main argument is neatly captured by conservative commentator and Washington Times columnist Frank Gaffney, who asserts that the administration nefariously seeks to “limit U.S. ballistic missile defenses.

That blanket statement is baloney. Witness the decision by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this week to position antimissile defenses in Hawaii in case North Korea tests another of its Taepodong-2 missiles later this summer. When credible threats arise, Gates deploys credible defenses—in this case, the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.

In fact, the Obama administration’s missile defense budget actually increases funding for the most battle-ready missile defense systems that offer credible protections against current and near-term threats. At this juncture these threats are mainly Iran and North Korea’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which enable these countries to threaten their neighbors and U.S. military forces based or operating nearby.

Just one case in point: The ship-based AEGIS program would receive a 62-percent budget increase. AEGIS takes aim at short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during the midcourse phase of flight, and has some ability to intercept short-range missiles as they descend to their targets. This funding would support upgrades for an additional six AEGIS ships for a planned total of 27, increase the number of interceptors by nearly 50 percent, and sustain ongoing research and development of a sophisticated new interceptor, the SM-3 Block IIA.

When the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor is delivered in 2015, three AEGIS-equipped ships supported by two transportable forward-based radars could protect more European capitals against a broader range of Iranian ballistic missile threats than the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system the Bush administration proposed deploying to the Czech Republic and Poland.

The budget would also quadruple funding for Theater High-Altitude Area Defense procurement, enabling more rapid manufacture of THAAD interceptors. THAAD is a mobile, land-based system that targets missiles as they begin their final descent. THAAD is already six for six in tests since its current regimen began in 2006. The budget also increases funding for Sea-Based X-Band Radar development, testing, and command and control, among other missile defense programs.

The missile defense theologians’ real gripe with the administration’s budget is that it proposes cuts to their pet programs. These include, among others, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the Multiple Kill Vehicle, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, and the Airborne Laser.

One thing these programs have in common (other than the theologians’ blind faith) is a troubling record of severe underperformance that raises serious questions about technological and militarily feasibility. Consider the Airborne Laser program. It envisions mounting powerful chemical lasers on modified Boeing 747s to take out missiles during the powered, or boost, phase of their ascent.

Unfortunately the technology has proven extraordinarily difficult to engineer in a way that is militarily practical. The range of the laser is several hundred miles (the precise figure is not public), which means that the relatively slow-moving 747s, costing around $2 billion each when outfitted with the laser, would have to fly within a few hundred kilometers of the enemy’s missile launch site.

That site, however, may be deep within the enemy’s territory, and at a minimum is likely to be heavily guarded by air defenses. Since the boost phase of missile flight lasts mere minutes, the plane would have to be close to the launch site during that narrow window of time. This potentially makes it a sitting duck for enemy air defenses. Proponents of the Airborne Laser have not offered satisfactory explanations for how this challenge might be overcome, particularly when another option—a “pre-boost phase” preemptive strike against the missile launch site—would seem more militarily effective.

As a result of these problems, the ABL program has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays. Hence the fiscal year 2010 budget request is for $186.7 million, compared to $400.8 million appropriated in fiscal year 2009, which ends this September. The FY2010 budget will fund efforts to test and improve the existing Airborne Laser prototype aircraft, rather than build a second prototype, which had been the earlier plan.

The theologians’ most treasured program, however, is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD. The Obama administration’s budget trims $525 million from the GMD program for a FY2010 request of $982.9 million. This program is intended to protect the U.S. homeland from limited intercontinental ballistic missile attacks from Iran and North Korea, but it too has been beset by cost overruns and schedule delays. Its test record is mediocre, having failed 8 out of 13 scripted flight tests, and there have been just four flight tests since 2004.

By comparison, during this same period AEGIS and THAAD were tested 16 and 6 times, respectively. AEGIS scored 14 out of 16, and THAAD, as noted earlier, was six for six.

In light of these problems, the FY2010 budget slows the pace of GMD interceptor deployments. It requests funding for six additional interceptors for a total of 30; the Bush administration, by contrast, had planned that 20 additional interceptors would be deployed by 2011.

As Secretary Gates has pointed out in Senate testimony, 30 GMD interceptors are sufficient to defend the United States against the very limited North Korean long-range missile threat. North Korea has yet to successfully flight test its Taepodong missile, which in theory is capable of targeting parts of the U.S. homeland; it also lacks the resources to build more than a handful of these expensive missiles.

Iran, for its part, is at least five to seven years from acquiring a capability to target the U.S. homeland, according to U.S. officials, and would require foreign assistance to achieve this timeline. The budget continues to fund research, development, and testing of GMD in order to ensure that the United States is prepared should these threats grow.

The United States needs real capabilities to deal with real threats. It must therefore continue to research, develop, and deploy credible missile defenses to protect the United States homeland, allied forces operating overseas, and the territory of U.S allies. The operative word here is “credible”—the United States should not waste its time or money on prematurely deploying untested systems or on research and development programs that hold little chance of yielding real capabilities.

Andrew Grotto is a Senior National Security Analyst at the Center for American Progress.

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