Profile: Riki Ellison

President, Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance

Despite a career in American football that included winning three Super Bowl championship rings, Riki Ellison calls missile defense his “life’s work ” in a biography posted on his organization’s Web site.

Ellison’s passion for the topic was kindled during college at the University of Southern California, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations — specializing in defense and strategic studies — under the tutelage professors such as J.D. Crouch, who currently serves as the White House deputy national security advisor. A big inspiration came during his senior year in 1983, when then-president Ronald Reagan delivered the famous speech proposing missile defense as an alternative to the Cold War deterrence construct known as mutually assured destruction.

“Switching from mutually assured destruction to having some capability to protect people in this country as well as other countries in the world from the most catastrophic weapons ever created — that’s been the major driving force for me,” Ellison said.

Ellison began speaking on behalf of missile defense in off seasons during his professional football career. After hanging up his cleats in 1992, he worked to market a variety of aerospace systems including VentureStar, Lockheed Martin’s proposed fully reusable launcher that never made it beyond the viewgraph stage. In 2002, he founded the Alexandria, Va.-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, which is dedicated to building public support for testing and deployment of missile defense systems.

Ellison says North Korea’s ballistic missile test launches July 4 helped his cause, and he has since called for beefing up the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System with more interceptors, and pressing ahead with deployment of the Aegis sea-based missile defense and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, both of which are still in testing.

Ellison took time during a recent visit to missile defense facilities in Alaska to speak via telephone with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.

How have the July 4 North Korean missile launches
affected your agenda?

I’ve been focusing on opening the dialog with the center and the center left, which is very important to me. We have a more receptive audience than we have had in the past for missile defense, and I have had the opportunity to brief Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) office.

From my perspective, the media coverage of what happened on July 4 has educated the public very well on the threat. I don’t think there is disagreement from anyone on the need for missile defense — the main issue is how soon we should deploy it.

Those who support missile defense are already behind us. There’s no reason to spend time and resources drinking your own Kool-Aid.

North Korea’s outburst
, you issued a news release calling on the Pentagon to immediately deploy the Aegis sea-based missile defense system and THAAD. What
gives you confidence that these systems are ready?

Aegis has been seven for eight in intercept tests. That capability to defend the United States, as well as Japan and South Korea, is very real.

I think THAAD is another phenomenal system. It complements Patriot by covering a much wider area and intercepts missiles as a point in flight where Patriot can’t reach. There is a test coming up of THAAD against a target featuring a warhead that separates from the booster rocket — after that, it should be deployed in Hawaii, and possibly Japan, South Korea and Europe as well.

So Aegis and THAAD have had enough testing?

Of course not. I’m a big proponent of testing, but in the real world, we’re in a position where we need to field some systems before they are finished testing. That might not be ideal, but these systems can and will offer protection to ourselves and our allies, while deterring enemies from planning missile attacks.

The world is flat today. Any strike on our allies would cause havoc for our economy, as well as economies all over the world. I’m concerned about North Korea’s nuclear testing plans. That’s a huge issue. If they do that, there is a lot of pressure on Japan to do the same thing. China doesn’t want Japan armed with nukes. That’s a volatile situation down the line.

Also, deploying THAAD and Aegis, as well as more Patriot interceptors in places like Japan, not only protects those nations, but gives U.S. State Department negotiators more leverage when dealing with North Korea. If you can neuter those missiles, North Korea doesn’t have much to stand or negotiate with.

In July, you publicly scolded
the House Appropriations Committee’s Republican leadership for zeroing the Pentagon’s 2007 budget request for a European site for the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System
. Have
you met with the committee staff since then about the issue?

Yes, I have. They agree that we should have a European site, but do not want to fund it until the United States has an agreement in place with a host country. So once that agreement is in place, we won’t have that issue.

Why isn’t an agreement in place?

The issue hasn’t been explained properly to the European public, which may perceive it as a system solely intended to defend the United States. It isn’t. It will protect them as well.

try to
spread that
message in Europe?

Our role, with limited resources, is to push missile defense here in this country. The threats to missile defense in the United States today are the scarcity of Defense Department dollars, a possible change in party — in the House, Senate or administration — and test failures.

We need to address those things in this country first and foremost before moving on to Europe. I feel like I’m gaining momentum with the left and center left, but if the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System has a problem, or you lose the House, or there is a scarcity of funds, those things will hurt the momentum that has been created.

Are there any missile defense lessons yet
from Israel’s recent battles with Hezbollah in Lebanon?

With Israel , you have a country that was receiving rocket fire and had no other option than to do a military strike and take over part of Lebanon. What lesson do we need to learn from that? We need a missile defense system that gives us an option other than sending troops into bloodshed because another country has the capability to strike us. I don’t think people have looked at missile defense that way. Neither the critics nor the proponents have talked about it this way.

Thomas Christie, the former
chief weapons tester at the Pentagon, was quoted recently as saying the Ground Based Midcourse Defense System likely would
have less than a 20 percent chance of shooting down an incoming missile from North Korea. What’s your
take on the system’s effectiveness

He’s far more knowledgeable than I am, and has credibility, but that 20 percent could be from firing just one interceptor at the incoming missile. We have nine or 10 interceptors, and can take multiple shots at the incoming target , so that would increase the chances of hitting the missile — and the system will continue to get better.

Whether the accuracy is 20 or 50 percent, it’s better than not having anything. The president turned that system on prior to the North Korean testing on July 4, and while the system’s capability might not be 100 percent, I think it would have a pretty good shot at intercepting the North Korean missile.