Missile Defense: Becoming A Full-Fledged Partner In Strategic Deterrence

by PETER HUESSY November 8, 2017

When in 1983 President Reagan first proposed missile defense it was not to be a substitute for strategic nuclear deterrence but an additional capability to enhance and strengthen deterrence. Particularly important was the idea that missile defense would seriously complicate an adversary's plans to attack the United States with ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons, and eventually be so effective as to make impotent coercive threats backed by fast flying missiles. 

At the same time Reagan envisioned markedly reducing the nuclear weapons each nuclear superpower aimed at each other, and getting out of the SALT treaty rut of agreeing largely to massively increase our arsenals with but only minor changes in their ultimate makeup.

In numerous NNDD's the Reagan administration pushed three joint and interconnected policies: (1) a build-down of nuclear weapons emphasizing going to sea with submarines, limiting and eventually eliminating multi-warhead land based missiles, and giving significant growth to bombers while simultaneously markedly decreasing overall warhead levels;  (2) deploy missile defenses that would seriously complicate the Soviets efforts to engage in the first use of nuclear weapons against American and allied key military and security assets; and (3) make arms control serve US defense and security goals and objectives, not the other way around.  

To be clear, President Reagan at the Reykjavik summit with General Secretary Gorbachev settled on trying to eliminate destabilizing fast-flying nuclear tipped missiles. But missile defenses would remain and would be a key strategic insurance policy, as there were certainly going to be future "mad men" who might seek to build nuclear armed missiles even if the United States and the Soviets gave their missiles up.

But Gorbachev insisted that missile defense be kept totally within the laboratory, where it would have certainly died, securing the Soviets cherished goal of stopping America's missile defense technology from ever being deployed.

Of course, Reagan rightfully rejected the Soviet's proposal.

Although stuck in the confines of the ABM treaty until 2002, the missile defense research work initiated in 1983 did allow some important research, (but no development, testing and deployment), and we achieved some significant technology knowledge.

The use by Saddam Hussein of Scud missiles against the United States and its allies in the Gulf War in 1991 helped spur some important theater missile defense work, most notably led by Representative Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania who pushed hard to enhance the capability of the existing Patriot-2 air defense systems but of a broader and more capable global missile defense system.

But it was a decade after the Gulf War when President Bush finally terminated the United States interest in the ABM treaty in 2002, and committed the country to build missile defense interceptors designed to protect the people of the United States, something the BM treaty prohibited.

And this was first accomplished by 2003-4 despite widespread opposition from arms control enthusiasts convinced missile defense deployments would spell the end of arms control and upset the strategic balance.

Contrary to their fears, by 2009, American and allied missile defense deployments at the regional, theater and global level went dramatically forward. Missile defenses expanded even while simultaneously under the Moscow and New Start treaties, Russian and United States deployed strategic nuclear weapons were cut by some 9000 warheads, a reduction of 75%.

At the same time, by 2009, projected deployments of missile defenses were projected to reach roughly 1400 total interceptors on all American defense systems including Patriot, THAAD, Aegis Standard Missile and Ground Based Interceptors.

If one included the Israel systems such as Arrow, David's Sling and Iron Dome, that number of interceptors would be considerably higher.

By comparison, United States deployed missile defense interceptors of any kind at the end of 2000 consisted of roughly 171 Patriot-2 air defensive systems propelled by the Gulf War to be upgraded to deal with medium range missile threats.

But as for defending the United States from missiles, here at home we were naked.

A decade later by 2009, having finally moved forward to defend the country under the Bush administration, we could have chosen to build a truly capable global missile defense capability.  But the incoming Obama administration while consolidating and further testing inherited missile defense capabilities, sliced some $40 billion from missile defense spending planned by the previous Bush administration even as missile storm threats gathered.

Planned missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic were cancelled as was work on multiple-kill interceptors and the Air Borne Laser. Annual requests for missile defense declined, and needed inventories of regional missile defenses were seriously underfunded.

As a result, we are now in serious jeopardy as the defensive capabilities we have are not where we should be or where the threat is. This gives substance to the concern that like the 1970's, there is a strategic defense window of vulnerability that is getting wider.

Robert Kaplan in his "Revenge of Geography" told his readers that the arc of countries from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East all were becoming lands of "overlapping missile ranges", with many of these missiles armed with nuclear weapons.

Saddam Hussein gave us in 1991 a glimpse of missile attacks against our forces in Saudi Arabia and the cities Tel Aviv and Haifa in Israel. In 1990 we were improving the theater Patriot air defenses-despite the House of Representatives annually prohibiting giving the Patriot a missile defense capability---and by early 1991 some hundred plus missiles were produced.

As for national missile defense, following the breakup of the Soviet empire as well as the Gulf War against Iraq, the Bush administration and some in Congress both took the lead and worked on legislation pushing for missile defense development.

ALPS, the Accidental Launch Protection System was proposed by Senator Nunn in early 1989 and GPALS, the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes framework was proposed by President Bush in his 1991 State of the Union speech.

Senator Warner, the chairman of the SASC, then subsequently introduced the Missile Defense Act of 1991, to require the Defense Department to develop for deployment by FY1996 an effective defense. In December, despite opposition from the minority on the SASC, President Bush signed the bill, but it contained a requirement that any defense we built had to be compliant with the ABM treaty.

Unfortunately, less than two years later, under the incoming Clinton administration, even that was too much, as the Secretary of Defense under White House orders killed all serious SDI type work while also eviscerating from the missile defense budget fully forty percent of all theater or regional missile defense research and development.

The new administration, despite the repeated emergence of missile threats, remained enthralled to those who wanted zero defenses under the strange notion that other nations would see American missile defenses as stealth candidates for future war plans-under the bizarre idea that America's plan was to deploy "first the shield, [missile defense], then the sword" [an American attack].

Subsequently, however, prospects for missile defense improved, when in 1995 control of Congress switched hands. However, the new push for missile defenses in the Contract with America, could not fully overcome the Clinton administration's hostility to both national missile defense and previously planned theater missile defenses for our troops and allies overseas.

By 1997, the Senate again passed a missile defense act requiring the protection of all 50 states by 2003 but no bill made it into law. 

Instead, the Congress established a commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld to examine missile threats to the United States hoping this would spur new legislative action. The unanimous report in July 1998 warned that missile threats "could emerge with little warning" and "likely will appear soon".

Then a month later, despite the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff having told Congress no such missile threats were even on the horizon, North Korea surprised the world and launched a long range Taepo Dong, three stage-missile over Japan.

With the North Korean long- range missile launch, Congress woke up. Led by Senators Cochran and Stevens and Representative Weldon, a coalition of missile defense supporters pushed, pulled and cajoled fellow members of Congress to finally pass the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. This new law made it official U.S. policy to "deploy national missile defenses as soon technologically possible".  

Although the capability of such defenses had to be limited, and designed only to deal with limited threats from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran and only as "technology allowed", the United States now could move forward to defend Americans--almost.

But what was needed, of course, was a President to get rid of the ABM Treaty. For with the ABM Treaty intact, the United States could still not deploy a missile defense protecting all the people of the country.

Fast forward now to 2017.

Despite important but in many ways only limited progress since 2009 on missile defenses, there were some recent bright spots. Congress last year did delete the requirement in the 1999 law that our missile defenses be of only a limited nature, and emphasized the USA would protect itself and its allies from whatever was a dangerous missile threat no matter its origin or dimensions.

This turned on its head the long-held view that our missile defenses could not challenge the strategic balance we had with Russia and China. Using the word "limited" was code language to commit the United States to not build a missile defense to defend against China and Russia because it was assumed any such defense was somehow going to erode their ability to strike the United States with ballistic missile armed with nuclear weapons.

Now that restriction is gone, and the United States can build missile defenses that are needed. 

As such, more funding will be added to the Missile Defense Agency -upwards of $6 billion in emergency North Korean related funds according to the administration, and very considerable amounts for missile defense..

A ballistic missile defense review is also being conducted which should be completed by the end of the year which will lay out a roadmap for the next few years.

Everyone is no doubt aware that North Korea can now launch ballistic missiles capable of reaching large swaths of the continental United States. We also know from top ranking American military commanders and our Secretary of Defense that the North Korean threat includes the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit on the top of ballistic missiles as well as carry out an EMP type attack. While accuracy and other missile attributes may still improve under the DPRK, the existing threat is real, here and now and serious.

Given this threat, are we protected?

Here is the scoop.

From 2003 and by the end of the year, the United States will have successfully deployed 44 silo based missile interceptors in California and Alaska, designed specifically to intercept North Korean long-range rockets launched at the United States.

Much had been made of the supposed limited capability of these interceptors to deal with intercontinental ballistic missile threats. Some loud critics say they are worthless.
Well, what are the facts?

Despite a near continuous effort by critics to regularly reduce, delay and defeat missile defense funding, the system in Alaska and California built to defend the continental United States and featuring the most modern of our interceptors has been successful in five of the past six tests, or 80%, a huge improvement from the past. 

When coupled with all other theater missile defense tests, the USA has successfully demonstrated success in 79 of these 96 tests with latter tests of the various systems markedly better in capability than those earlier in the systems development. Adding in European and Israel tests, the success rate goes to 123 out of 141, a success rate of 72%.

The United States has plans to increase the Alaskan BMD defense deployments to at least 64 GBI (ground based interceptors) from the current 33 and then proceed on toward 100. We also want to add critically important space based sensors and radars to markedly improve these defenses.

Of real importance is going to be persuading Congress to create a space test bed and then subsequently deploy space based interceptors. The high frontier of space allows one to see, track and discriminate the missile threats more clearly and more quickly.

In that the Alaska-based GBI was designed specifically to counter the DPRK threat, it will get more capability. That includes the multiple kill vehicle (MKV) which should be resurrected. The most recent long-range missile test was successful against an ICBM type missile target (for the first time) and involved successfully discriminating between the real warhead and decoys and countermeasures.

Another complimentary East Coast deployment of GBI's is also needed along with associated radars. And missile production should be accelerated to a higher annual production rate and over a longer period, which will allow us to replace old interceptors, add to the test regime, and improve program effectiveness.

From Congressional testimony, it is also clear all our combat commanders need more "missile defense" inventory especially Aegis Standard, THAAD, and Patriot missile interceptors. Important as well is the promising area of directed energy which showed considerable promise with the Air-Borne Laser.  

THAAD deployments in the Republic of Korea are now approved, and apparently, the Chinese have dropped their demand the THAAD battery in ROK be taken down, a victory for the Pacific American alliance. My sources also tell me that the ROK government made no pledge not to deploy additional THAAD batteries in the future.

In Japan, THAAD and Aegis cruisers and their SM interceptors have also been deployed. And American naval assets with missile defense are in the Pacific area as well. Critical to successfully facing missile threats from the DPRK will be the future development of an Aegis or aerial platform, coupled with a Standard Missile or AMRAAM/Reaper boost-phase capability, to shoot down North Korean rockets early in their launch.

But whatever future systems we build, particularly important is that the American public needs to understand that claims the missile defense tests are rigged are themselves totally bogus. For at least forty years, since President Reagan's SDI speech, critics and professional skeptics have continued to claim all missile defense successes are fake, the tests are "rigged", and missile defense does not work.

It is true missile tests must be conducted carefully and with range safety requirements in mind as merchant ships and private and commercial air travel in the vicinity cannot be put at risk. And yes, tests are held on military bases and held precisely in defense areas designed for testing such as the Pacific test range.

Here the GBI target is launched from the far Pacific, from the Kwajalein test center. The interceptor is launched going West from the USAF base at Vandenburg, in California. These GBI tests are highly realistic as the interceptor kill vehicle is the only technology homing in on the target vehicle going at combined speed more than 15000 kilometers an hour.

Now it is true in the test that the kill vehicle's computer is told that there has been a launch over the Pacific of a "target" missile and roughly where to find it. 

Critics say this is cheating.

No, it isn't.

The interceptor would get the same information in a real threat environment. Our satellites will warn the missile defense system commanders that an adversary launch has been detected, and where the launch originated and roughly where the target can be found. But finding and intercepting the target at thousands of miles an hour is the job solely of the interceptor in the final minutes of either the test or the real-world shoot-down.   

Again, let me repeat. The radars and sensors we have will give that exact same information in a test as they will give to any kill vehicle we launch in a real threat environment as well. The kill vehicle is told only that there is a launch of a missile-which our GPS defense satellites will tell us in a real scenario.

The onboard computer of the intercepting system upon which the entire system relies, during both tests and in a real time engagement, would find the target and direct the hit-to-kill collision in the same way.

One bizarre claim of the critics is with the sun being behind the target vehicle, thus illuminating the target, it makes finding the warhead simpler.


The sunlight makes the job of intercepting the target more not less difficult. And the reason the test is done in the day time is to better ensure the safety of airliners and merchant vessels to improve their visual detection of the test assets.

Looked at missile defense success another way is the case of Israel. That country had to deal with more rocket attacks from Hamas in the summer of 2015 than England faced in all of World War II from Nazi Germany. Yet Israel using the Iron Dome missile defense hit-to-kill technology, successfully shot down 90% of the Hamas rockets it engaged, while at the same time, in real time, Iron Dome's combat software was being continually upgraded.

Similarly, the Saudi Kingdom, using American made missile defense Patriot systems, has successfully shot down 85% of the terrorist Youthis (Iran supplied) rockets launched at a wide variety of Saudi strategic economic and military targets, including at key oil terminals and air bases according to missile defense expert Uzi Rubin, with one shoot down occurring just this past week.

So worthwhile is the US missile defense effort that some four dozen other allies of the USA are also deploying elements of missile defense including all of NATO. If missile defense didn't work, then why would all these countries take part in such deployments at considerable expense knowing they cannot afford not to be serious about very serious threats?

In fact, at our current GBI intercept capability, if multiple missile interceptors are used simultaneously we have indeed a 98% shot at intercepting a single North Korean rocket threat as the administration noted.

But while that math looks good, we have much more to do and to achieve especially against more sophisticated and realistic threats. And better radars and sensors and interceptors must be deployed to get there.

Whatever you think are the motives or objectives of the regime in the DPRK or Iran, or Russia or China, the threats from its ballistic missiles are real, serious and deadly.

And it is our job to faithfully protect America from such threats and that requires a robust deterrent policy on which missile defenses are key, just as President Reagan said in March 1983, some one third of a century ago.

Missile threats are expanding, especially as we have seen from North Korea. And since the administration's ballistic missile defense review is currently underway and by the end of the year will be completed, it is hoped this essay successfully outlines some useful and important steps our country can take, first to close the window of vulnerability and second, to help bring greater stability and peace to the nation and its allies through a robust, global missile defense capability. 

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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