U.S. Missile Defense Woefully Prepared for 21st Century Threats
There’s a memorable scene in the first “Iron Man” movie where a naïve but well-meaning liberal journalist confronts Tony Stark with the nickname “Merchant of Death” and accuses him of war profiteering. Tony coolly responds, “It's an imperfect world, but it's the only one we've got. I guarantee you the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace; we'll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals." The journalist has no comeback, surrendering to Tony’s reason (and his charm).
Although that scene was written to be funny, its basic premise is true and the reasoning inarguable: we live in an extremely dangerous world, populated by bad actors with no reservation of using weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations. Meanwhile, our nuclear superiority is decaying. The same year "Iron Man" came out, way back in 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that, “No one has designed a new nuclear weapon in the United States since the 1980s, and no one has built a new one since the early 1990s. … At a certain point, it will become impossible to keep extending the life of our arsenal.”
Terrorists and tyrants will never thank us for playing nice and disarming. In power until he dies, Vladimir Putin didn’t get the memo that the Cold War is over. Xi Jinping knows a strong America is the only thing between him and world domination.
Nuclear attack is the biggest military threat the United States and our allies. A single megaton-size nuclear warhead aimed at a major American city could kill or irradiate millions, with incalculable economic repercussions. If aimed at the American heartland, once-fertile farmland could cripple our agricultural capabilities and leave millions to starve.
Whereas mutually assured destruction kept the world relatively safe during the Cold War, the proliferation of nuclear capabilities has turned Planet Earth into a ticking, radioactive timebomb. While the last world war ended because just one country became a nuclear power, the next world war will start with nine nuclear powers – not including the risk of non-state actors getting their hands on nuclear materials.
But before we all move to rural Montana or New Zealand, there is a solution to help keep the American homeland as secure as possible: a robust, domestic missile-defense plan. The previous Administration inexplicably gutted it, and Pentagon bureaucrats are continuing to underfund it, but it can be brought back online.
This matter of America’s ongoing nuclear superiority is at the heart of a contentious funding dispute between the White House and Congress, with the final 2021 federal budget expected by Feb. 11. The appropriation of billions for the right nuclear defense will save us countless cents we’d have to pay to tribute to the villains who want to overtake us.
The best technology for protecting the homeland from intercontinental ballistic missile attack is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program. The GMD element of the Ballistic Missile Defense System can engage and destroy limited intermediate- and long-range missile threats in space. The no-nonsense Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) is a sensor/propulsion package that uses the kinetic energy from a direct hit to destroy the incoming target vehicle. It is vital for Congress and the Pentagon to support further deployment of these defenses now with the threats of the 21st Century.
One of the first acts of the previous Administration was to slash GMD funding, shifting defense programs to protect our under-paying NATO allies in Europe rather than the US homeland. President Obama deployed Aegis Ashore and Standard Missile 3s in Romania and Poland – which is good, no one wants to see them re-invaded by Russia. Still, the President's first and highest duty is to defend the United States.
Many pre-Trump leftover appointees continue to jeopardize national security. Moreover, career bureaucrats in the Pentagon are undermining missile defense. Dr. Michael Griffin, the otherwise reasonable undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, issued a stop-work order to Boeing on the development of a Redesigned Kill Vehicle (or RKV) in 2018. In the latest NDAA, conservatives in Congress “took a whack” at Griffin, whose behind-the-scenes power struggle with Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord is doing nothing to keep us safe.
Furthermore, the Pentagon hit the pause button on a troubled effort to redesign the EKV on the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system’s interceptors after a two-year delay already postponed its deployment.
But there is hope. Last month, Boeing won a $265 million contract modification for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense anti-ballistic missile system, and Raytheon has announced it can fix some of the shortcomings of the RKV design. These are positive developments if the Pentagon sticks with the program.
China and Russia like to shake their fists when the United States provides missile defense for its homeland and its allies, and outrage from Moscow and Beijing is usually a sign we are on the right track. Hypersonics will throw a wrench at missile defense, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pursued. Combined with left-of-launch strategies, we must have a more robust approach to missile defense. If we do, we won’t even need Iron Man to protect us.
Jared Whitley is a long-time DC politico, having worked in the US Senate, the Bush White House, and the defense industry. He is a graduate of Hult International Business School in Dubai.