ICBM Defense: It's Up to Congress
In February, China’s nuclear experts electrified their U.S. counterparts with an estimate that North Korea has 20 nuclear warheads and can double that arsenal next year. Congress is now deciding how to best protect America’s homeland from long-range missiles, and there is no longer much margin for error.
Lt. Gen. David L. Mann, commander of the Army’s Space Missile Defense Command, has said 22 countries now have ballistic missile capability, nine of which have nuclear weapons. Besides North Korea, the group includes Russia and China, each with huge numbers of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), took special notice of those ballistic and cruise missile threats to America’s warfighters and allies. The committee mark-up of their portion of the National Defense Authorization Act calls for upgrading missile defense sites in Europe to counter Russian missiles that violate the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.
Also, in recognition of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats to America’s homeland, the bill will move the Sea-Based X-Band Radar from the Pacific to the Atlantic to improve defenses. But all that is not enough. Congress must upgrade our existing defenses against ICBMs, and complete it before fully investing in an immense new research program. We cannot afford both.
Today’s defense against an ICBM attacking the American homeland is the “Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle” (EKV), a state-of-the-art projectile launched from ground-based interceptor sites in Alaska and California. It destroys ICBMs by direct impact. For the last 20 years. the Missile Defense Agency invested significant funds and resources to develop that EKV, the most successful kill vehicle ever built. On the Standard Missile-3, and on ground-based interceptors, those kill vehicles have made more than two dozen intercepts.
Despite being our only defense against long-range missile attacks, the ground-based interceptor and its EKV have faced a host of challenges in the last decade. One challenge is lack of funding.
Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) has noted, “The Administration and Congress have failed to prioritize missile defense programs… In fact, from 2008 to 2012, funding for the ground-based-midcourse defense has been cut in half.”
Such drastic budget cuts curtail testing the system, and from 1999 to 2008 there were only 14 intercept tests. With just three tests in the last five years, there is a critical lack of data needed to improve the system.
Another challenge is a proposal that could stall the near-term improvement of our existing defenses in favor of funding future technology: a Multiple Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV). Growing ICBM threats to the United States means that developing new kill vehicles in coming years is a good idea, but scrapping the existing kill vehicle in favor of “clean sheet” research has serious drawbacks.
The ultimate cost, for example, of “clean sheet” development is immense and unpredictable. Worse yet, the MOKV could not be ready for at least eight to 10 years. Meanwhile, the United States would be vulnerable to attack by a growing legion of adversaries.
Congress should continue to support the Missile Defense Agency's plan for near-term redesign of the existing kill vehicle until it is completed. It should be a priority effort unclouded by promises of new and better systems with PowerPoint programs that rarely deliver anything on-schedule or on-budget. Sticking with what we have that works, and improving it, is the lowest-risk, most cost-effective option before we eventually must create new kill vehicle technology.
In an uncertain world one thing is certain: Long-range ballistic missiles threaten our cities, infrastructure and military forces. Congress must ensure that our defenses will continue to defeat ballistic missiles by building upon yesterday’s successes in order to create the kill vehicle needed today.
North Korea will rejoice if we get sidetracked and fail.