Since 2002, two separate camps have ridiculed the U.S. Defense Department’s approach to deploying long-range homeland defenses.
One camp maintains that lack of flight-testing of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system and its susceptibility to countermeasures makes near-term defense of the United States against ICBMs an imprudent, futile exercise.
Another camp maintains that a balanced approach, including the near-term focus on silo-based midcourse defenses, is misguided, and that a more effective defense against uncertain threats is to rely solely on assets at sea or in space.
Both camps would have stopped deployment of silo-based homeland defenses, and both camps would have been wrong. Not only have we fielded a system capable of countering the most pressing long- and short-range threats we face today, but we
also are evolving this system with ever-more capable sea- and space-based elements to defeat more robust future threats.
The ballistic missile development and test efforts pursued by North Korea, combined with their nuclear program, generated an urgency earlier this decade to field an integrated, layered missile defense quickly. Mobile land- and sea-based interceptors could handle the short- and medium-range threat missiles, but due to the long-range missile’s speed, altitude and range, the only defense option available in 2002 was the silo-based midcourse defense element. This element was started under Ronald Reagan, pursued during the George H.W. Bush administration and was part of the Bill Clinton administration’s national missile defense system.
Today, we have in place the most complex defensive weapon system ever fielded. Since June 2004, we have constructed new missile field complexes in Alaska and California, emplaced 19 long-range interceptors, and delivered 16 Aegis ships capable of providing long-range surveillance and tracking information to the system. Seven of those ships are capable of firing the 20 sea-based interceptors we delivered to destroy shorter-range missile threats.
We also upgraded early warning and tracking radars in Alaska, California and the United Kingdom, and deployed two very precise X-band radars, one in Japan and the other on a mobile platform in the Pacific Ocean, to guard against long- and short-range attacks.
We have soldiers, sailors and airmen manning the system with the command, control and battle management infrastructure in place that allows commanders to synchronize widely dispersed missile defense assets. These assets reach from the Asia-Pacific region across the United States into Europe and the Middle East.
I would argue that we deployed this system just in time.
When North Korea launched short- and long-range missiles last summer, we had, for the first time, the means to defend all 50 states against a possible attack. Without it, the only options available to our leaders are pre-emption, retaliation or capitulation.
In fact, two weeks before the North Korea launches, two former-
Defense Department officials from the Clinton administration recommended a pre-emptive strike against the North Korean launch site. Since we had an operational capability to defend against a missile launched at the United States, the president had an alternative other than pre-emption and retaliation.
We have demonstrated that this system, to include the long-range elements, works. Overall, in our land- and sea-based interceptor test program since 2001, we have launched 28 of 36 successful hit-to-kill engagements in the low and upper atmosphere as well as in space. The eight failures we experienced involved component malfunction, not basic design or functional flaws.
Since September 2005, 18 of 19 flight tests have been successful, including tests of the long-range silo-based interceptors. We have conducted these tests in operationally realistic conditions using soldiers, sailors and airmen, and we will continue to do so.
Because we cannot predict who the enemy will be tomorrow, we need a development effort to keep pace with the threat and leverage technology innovations. I believe we have that.
With the Airborne Laser, we are on the verge of demonstrating that we can detect and destroy fast-moving ballistic missiles in the powered boost phase using directed energy before they have a chance to deploy decoys or multiple warheads. We successfully fired the laser on the ground more than 70 times and demonstrated the laser optics on board the modified Boeing 747 in flight.
With the Kinetic Energy Interceptor high-acceleration booster development effort, we have a land- and sea-based capability that could provide another boost-phase option and a next-generation replacement for midcourse ground-based interceptors fielded in Alaska and California.
Despite budget squeezes, I have always viewed this booster development as a potentially major element in our layered architecture.
The Space Tracking and Surveillance System satellites would allow us to employ birth-to-death tracking of ballistic missiles globally to provide the flexibility needed for future threats.
And the Multiple Kill Vehicle system is a generational upgrade to the land- and sea-based midcourse interceptors that will allow us to handle decoys and countermeasures.
The criticisms of the decision to field long-range missile defenses continue, but they are being shown to be without merit with each passing year.
We made the right moves back in 2002. And much like in a game of chess, we must stay ahead of our adversaries and make the right moves – just in time.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering is director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.