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National Ballistic Missile Defense

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Ballistic missile defense (BMD) – and especially the subcategory of national missile defense (NMD) – has become a topic of growing concern, increased national and international political argument, confusion over both current and near-term state-of-the-art technology, and uncertain deployment. During the Cold War, missile defense efforts by the United States and its European and Pacific allies centered on thousands of Soviet short-, medium- and long-range missiles, many carrying nuclear warheads. Because 20th century technology could not create a shield against those missiles, the United States and USSR moved into a stalemate based on the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD): If one nation launched its missiles, the other would retaliate with full force, destroying both – and the world.

While many of the missile defenses envisioned in the 1980s and ’90s were terminated – from space-based systems such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) to the more recently canceled Airborne Laser (ABL) – the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), working with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, has continued work on land- and sea-based defenses, from early-warning radars to anti-missile missiles.

The 21st century threat, however, is seen largely as, at most, a handful of missiles of indeterminate range, accuracy, and payload coming from two rogue nations for whom MAD is considered a descriptive term, not a workable defense posture.

GMD CTV01 launch

A Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptor launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., during a Missile Defense Agency test in 2010. Boeing photo by Paul Pinner

North Korea joined the “nuclear club” in 2006 and has conducted repeated test launches of missiles it has threatened to use against South Korea, Japan, and the United States. While Iran has yet to test the nuclear devices the world believes it is developing, it is far ahead of Pyongyang in developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), with a range of 1,800 to 3,100 miles – not enough to reach the United States, but capable of hitting targets in the Middle East, North Africa, and much of Europe and Asia.

While many of the missile defenses envisioned in the 1980s and ’90s were terminated – from space-based systems such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) to the more recently canceled Airborne Laser (ABL) – the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), working with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, has continued work on land- and sea-based defenses, from early-warning radars to anti-missile missiles.

A September 2011 Defense Science Board Task Force report to then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on “Science & Technology Issues of Early Intercept Ballistic Missile Defense Feasibility” reported the best and most cost-effective approach to defending the United States against long-range ballistic missiles was a robust, layered global system. That would comprise forward-based regional interceptors, both land- and sea-based, with U.S.-based defenses only used to defeat any enemy missiles that survived.

“Overall, the basic components in inventory now, namely Aegis ships with radars and long-range interceptor missiles, are well suited as the foundation of the regional defense mission, including the defense of Europe. The Task Force also finds that current efforts to place assets on land, where suitable geography and regional political relationships enable this option, have the potential to contribute to and enhance a flexible and effective ballistic missile defense,” the report concluded.

President Barack Obama’s $526.6 billion FY 2014 defense base budget request, which included $9.2 billion for missile defenses, less than 2 percent of the total, seemed to be patterned on those conclusions.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on April 11, 2013, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the amount sought would enable the Department of Defense (DoD) to increase its fleet of Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI), continue conversion of Aegis ships to provide BMD capability, and procure additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors and Patriot PAC-3 missiles.

Those funds also would support U.S. missile defense cooperative programs with the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Israel, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, and many others. In addition, each of those nations – as well as Russia, China, India, etc. – have their own national BMD programs.

As the belligerent rhetoric from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un mounted in early 2013, the Obama administration ordered installation of new long-range GBI sites in Alaska and Hawaii, deployment of the THAAD land-based system in Guam two years ahead of the original 2015 schedule, and assignment of several Aegis-equipped guided-missile destroyers and cruisers to waters surrounding Japan, Guam, and North Korea.

In a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies on April 8, 2013, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the deployment of 14 more interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, sending Aegis BMD-equipped Navy vessels to the western Pacific, and placing a second Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance and Control (AN/TPY-2) radar in Japan would enable the United States “to respond to any missile threats to our allies or our territory.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...