The Cost of Protection vs. The Cost of Regret

by PETER HUESSY November 17, 2017

It is the summer of 2024.

The North Korean nuclear threat remains, with Pyongyang reportedly having an arsenal of nuclear weapons estimated at from a dozen to fifty warheads. In addition, the North Korean regime has multiple hundreds of missiles and rockets of all ranges, including what US intelligence believes are a couple dozen long range ICBM type rockets in its arsenal, capable of being fired from mobile launchers manufactured in China, and capable of carrying nuclear warheads that can range most of the United States.

Unfortunately, in 2021, upon taking office the new administration had quickly concluded that despite decades long diplomatic efforts to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, success was not in the cards. North Korea had long claimed that the American "hostile policy" toward North Korea required the North to have a nuclear deterrent, irrespective of American efforts to declare its peaceful intentions.

The only chance to effect de-nuclearization, said the North repeatedly, was that the United States could get rid of its own nuclear weapons and then the North would follow suit.

Faced with these "assumed" facts, in 2021, the new administration in Washington decided to adopt a deterrent relationship with the North Korean regime, convinced that like the Soviet Union, the United States could deter North Korea and prevent any missile strike on its territory, adopting an unsteady but "mutual assured destruction" balance with Pyongyang.

The administration had also shut down, mothballed and started to dismantle the inherited missile defense system in Alaska and California for two reasons.

First, the interceptors, totaling 64, were described by opponents of missile defense as relatively ineffective and thus unworkable, and too expensive. Previous testing was apparently successful in only 10 of 18 tests, demonstrating roughly a little better than 50-50 shot at intercepting a North Korean missile aimed at the United States. That uncertainty, administration experts concluded, made any such defense untenable.

And second, North Korea could launch multiple missiles at the United States and deplete the available interceptors, it was assumed, because the defense said the arms control community needed to launch at least four interceptors at each warhead to have a chance of interception which critics still claimed was slim.

The new administration had also adopted wholesale the idea that missile defense would be other nations as part of an aggressive two-step process. "First the shield and then the sword" was the theory. In this view, missile defenses implied the United States had adopted an implicit strategy of US aggression, hoping to hide behind a missile defense shield after having attacked an enemy first.

The administration had also explicitly rejected the warning of General Kevin Campbell, the past Commander of the Space and Missile Defense Command, who had explained "Missile defense takes away the leverage an adversary might gain and stops an ability to use missiles for blackmail and coercion."

Continued the General, "We need not match the offensive inventory rocket for rocket", but "We need to buy the time necessary to then strike back and eliminate the arsenal held by the 'bad guys'". That's using the shield and the sword together. The General concluded, in the absence of a missile defense shield, we would be forced to choose between wielding the sword or surrender.

Unfortunately, on June 25, 2024, after four years of increased repression, economic hardship and famines in the North, and on the anniversary of the start of the Korean War in 1950, soldiers in the DMZ from North Korea in broad daylight, shoot and murder several defecting families including young children. The carnage is caught on video, posted on the internet and goes viral.

The nations of the region including the United States condemn such action and put their own military forces on higher alert. An embargo may be put into effect against the North and punitive sanctions adopted by the United Nations.

The North Korean government claims simultaneously that America and its allies are seeking to effect "regime change" by their aggressive action and demand if the United States "hostile policy" doesn't end, Pyongyang will turn America into "a sea of fire.".

Three days later, a long-range missile launches from the middle of the Pacific Ocean from a submarine. In 23 minutes it reaches the west coast of the United States. It detonates above the city of Los Angeles at 6:15pm on Friday.  

Subsequently, it is estimated the weapon was 20 kilotons and had immediately killed 200,000 Americans, with additional millions sickened with radiation poisoning and long- term cancers.

Having shut-down and mothballed in 2021 the "destabilizing" and "unworkable" missile defense system in California and Alaska, the President had no option such as intercepting the missile and preventing the subsequent nuclear catastrophe.

The White House thought of issuing a press release that missile defense would not have stopped the attack, and the government at least had saved billions of dollars in not deploying "destabilizing missile defenses", the exact wording from the 2000 platform of one of the major political parties in the country, adopted just 10 months after the very first North Korean long-range missile test.

It did not have to be this way.

Let us rewind this history.

Let us also look at an alternative future that protects the American people and what are the correct facts about missile defenses we should observe going forward.  

First, the missile defense we now have in Alaska and California has successfully intercepted in five of six tests using the deployed interceptor, or an eighty percent success rate. That is a good shield. It is true that in previous tests the success rate was not as great. But twice the target missile never got out of its Kwajalein Pacific based silo. And if you exclude these tests, the rate of success was still sixty three percent, certainly worthy of keeping the deployed system handy if that was all you had. But in fact the currently deployed interceptors are four of five in tests, as we have noted, and that is a significant protective capability. .

By comparison, in the three years prior to President Kennedy announcing we were going to the moon, we had 13 consecutive rocket launch failures, and even after the Saturn failure of 1967, we then built a new Saturn rocket and were on the moon in 1969, just two years later.

So, while a testing regime profile is important, it should not be justification for killing the sole basis for defending the United States if a missile is launched toward our country.

Second, Israel succeeded in using Iron Dome in a real war in the spring and summer of 2014. The missile defense destroyed 90% of engaged rockets launched by Hamas.

With a missile defense originally deployed from scratch in a surprisingly quick 3.5 year, Israel was able to defend itself. For nearly four months, 1500 rockets were launched by Hamas. During that time, Israel used both the Iron Dome defense and diplomatic options to protect its people and avoid a wider war. Israel did not engage in retaliatory and defensive airstrikes ("Operation Protective Edge") until 5 months into the war, in July, during which over 2500 missiles were launched by Hamas. Israel prevented thousands of Israeli casualties, thanks to the defensive shield of Iron Dome, losing only 8 fatalities.  

Third, robust missile defense deployments are perfectly consisted with lower levels of nuclear weapons and arms control, as well as preventing greater proliferation.

However, proponents of the ABM treaty argued the opposite.

The 1972 ABM treaty prohibited a defense of the American nation. By 1991, the Soviets instead of deploying 2200 warheads had reached over 13,000 hardly the "arms control" the ABM treaty proponents told us we would see once the ABM treaty was in force.

Fourth, after the ABM treaty was junked in 2002 and the United States went forward with missile defenses, the US and Russia were able to also reduce our deployed strategic nuclear weapons from 6000 to 1550 on each side, a 75% cut (in the Moscow Treaty and the New Start Treaty), proving that missile defense was perfectly compatible with arms control and strategic stability.

Fifth, missile defense tests are not rigged. Range safety requirements do require tests to be undertaken in certain areas where appropriate notice can be given to air and ocean traffic to avoid danger to such commerce. That requires setting a time for the tests. But the window for the test has been expanded to mimic real-world conditions including dealing with an ICBM class target along with decoys, which in recent missile defense tests were successfully distinguished from the real thing.

But claiming such tests are rigged is an unjustified attack on extraordinary civil servants, military officers and the industry who have dedicated themselves to protecting the American people and our allies.

Fifth, the budget for the missile defenses to protect America AFTER the ABM treaty was jettisoned has been on average $2.0 billion a year from 2003-2017. This includes 44 interceptors plus operations and maintenance, military construction, research, development, test and evaluation costs for the past 15 years.

As for the associated radars and sensors including SBIRs, the United States would have to build all these for shorter-range theater missile defense systems as well as for early warning of enemy missile launches for deterrence, and thus would be acquired irrespective of whether the USA built a national missile defense or not.

Sixth, nearly four dozen other countries around the world including Poland, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Romania, England, Denmark, Japan, India and Australia have joined the United States by 2017 deploying or supporting some elements of missile defenses world-wide, deploying multiple thousands of interceptors of all kinds.

Sixth, in the absence of any missile defense, the United States would be subject to recurring blackmail by missile and nuke armed states with the President having little diplomatic room to defend the country without having to contemplate an offensive even pre-emptive strike against aggressor states.

Seventh, the popular "first the shield, then the sword" narrative has the real world completely backwards. Without the shield (missile defense) you are forced to either use the sword-go to war-- or surrender (appeasing your enemies). In fact, missile defense makes diplomacy more stronger and more effective, despite clownish statements by its opponents.

So, if missile defense makes sense, what additional steps can the United States adopt to better protect the United States (CONUS) as well as our 49th and 50th states, Alaska and Hawaii, from the threat of missiles?

Here are a Bakers Dozen to consider:

  • We need to develop the ability to shoot down missile in early flight through a "boost phase capability, either with space based elements, ship board fast interceptors, or a combination of aerial platforms such as drones or UAVs combined with Reaper or AMRAAM missiles". We also need satellite constellations to detect and track ultra-fast, maneuvering missiles which are an emerging threat.
  • A multi-tiered national missile defense capability that includes introducing both Space-Based and Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV)-based Boost Phase Interceptors (BPI) which should use existing, mature technologies but ones that can be developed rapidly.
  • Our regional combat commanders do need more inventory of our missile defense interceptors such as THAAD, Patriot and Aegis and these should be high on the list of our priorities to the extent that such defenses can contribute to the protection of the American homeland.
  • However, we do not have to necessarily match the enemies inventory of missiles with our won interceptors, but we cannot watch the bad guys launch rockets at us with impunity and not fire back and take out their launch sites.
  • Particularly important is to protect our southern exposure, as we need radars that look out into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and missile defense deployments able to stop threats launched from adjacent maritime areas.
  • Some top missile defense experts recently advocated we pursue "A robust multilayered missile defense, especially boost-phase interceptors, [to] prevent a direct attack [from any] entity that has acquired a ballistic missile and intends to launch it from a commercial vessel such as a freighter" from maritime regions adjacent to the United States.
  • Peter Pry explains Iran's war fighting doctrine scenarios include the use of their Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile launched from a freighter. Twice during the 1990s he notes, the Iranians conducted successful missile tests from a barge in the Caspian, exploding a mock warhead in the high atmosphere simulating an electro-magnetic pulse attack.
  • We thus must harden our critical infrastructure to the effects of a nuclear or solar Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack, a technology the North Koreans and Iranian have developed.
  • It is not just North Korean missiles from which we must protect ourselves. Russia and the People's Republic of China both possess and are fully modernizing their large arsenals of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, and they target the major cities of the United States and that of our allies in Europe, Asia and Israel.
  • In 1981China's leadership says Tom Reed, the former deputy national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, deliberately sought to proliferate nuclear weapons technology to the third world, via the Pakistani-based Khan "Nukes ‘R Us" network, comparable with an effort writes top expert Peter Pry "described in 1995 by the Russian General Staff military think tank (INOBIS) recommending that Russia deliberately proliferate missile and nuclear weapon technology to nations hostile to the United States."
  • And Iran's subsidiary, Hamas, is a terror organization that launched more missiles and rockets at Israel in 2014 than Hitler did against Great Britain in all of World War II. Thus, also protecting Americans from such unconventional, non-state, terror threats is a key task. Here creative thinking will be needed anticipating the next attack that is coming over the horizon.
  • A group of long time missile defense experts have correctly noted Ronald Reagan believed the doctrine of mutual assured destruction was immoral. They wrote recently "He thought it was better [with missile defense] to prevent or mitigate a nuclear attack than to retaliate to one after we had lost millions of citizens. It was just common sense".
  • This will require substantial investments. The defense bill in Congress with $10.8 billion for missile defense is moving in the right direction having added $2.6 billion just for missile defense to the defense bill approved last year. This is badly needed, because from 2007-2016, just as the missile threats from China, Iran, Russia and North Korea were expanding, funds for the ground based interceptor system were being cut 47%.


This new direction is welcome, as we now hopefully will invest what needs to be done so America and her allies are protected from growing missile threats, so a few years hence we don't look at the smoldering ruins of a beautiful American city and looking back, admit that not seriously defending the United States from ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons was the biggest regret of our nation's history. 

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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