When the who’s who of missile defense advocacy gathered in Washington early last year, there was a palpable aura of triumph. Ostensibly the gala, hosted by a conservative think tank, was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s nationwide TV address to announce the Strategic Defense Initiative. But in reality, the star-studded assembly was bolstered by a recent U.S. anti-satellite demonstration by one of the components of the U.S. system, as well as continued justification for missile defenses brought by North Korean and Iranian provocations. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, industry leaders and countless other true-believers mingled with wide-eyed 22-year-old Washington interns who knew Reagan only as a historic icon.
None other than then-Vice President Dick Cheney delivered the keynote address, trumpeting Reagan’s “tear down this wall” mantra – and his fortitude to pursue missile defense, even if it were lambasted as Star Wars. “Reagan’s vision of missile defense surely helped accelerate our victory in the Cold War,” Cheney fed the dinner crowd that March night. “There was simply no way the Soviet Union was going to defeat an America so confident in its purposes, and so determined to defend itself against nuclear terror.”
That may be so, but the question remains: what now? By many accounts – from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill and the White House – the United States has achieved a self-described “crude” missile defense system that ranges from theater-based end-stage interception to an intercontinental, exo-atmospheric shoot-down capability. But just how integrated, operable, effective and affordable this “system” is remains to be seen.
What is known is the time and costs involved in developing it all. Congressional auditors know, for instance. The Government Accountability Office says U.S. taxpayers have spent about $125 billion as of this spring, and the Missile Defense Agency expected to spend about $50 billion more through 2013 for further development. Annual appropriations may vacillate, but even a Democratic-controlled Washington appears willing today to spend about $9 billion per year toward a capability that that political party once largely derided as wasteful and war-mongering.
What brought the change of heart? Yes, there might have been wasteful spending and countless program failures – see any number of Aviation Week articles, congressional audits or leaked Defense Dept. reviews for the details – but nobody wanted to see the whole effort fall apart after so much had been invested, soon-to-be Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters ahead of the 2006 congressional elections.
There was also the matter of Kim Jong Il’s first nuclear test on July 4th of that year that helped prove an adversary beyond the now-defunct Evil Empire. Kim’s second nuclear blast this year, along with Iran’s relentless march toward true ICBM and perhaps even nuclear capability, have only underscored the need for missile defenses from Europe to Hawaii.
So who was right these past 26 years, the proponents or the doubters? The answer is both, as only it can be in the era of threats launched by shoulder or silo. Missile defense is like a teen-ager, in need of both strong oversight and opportunity. It is not mature and proven, but it is not without grounds for hope and expectation.
Take the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system that shot down an ailing U.S. intelligence satellite last year, or the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-ballistic-missile system that is racking up its own successes. Both systems are being practically doubled under revised MDA plans, and the Navy and Army are embracing them for their success.
Yet, things were not always so grand. The 20-year-old THAAD, a $15 billion effort, was once so off track it had to undergo a six-year hiatus as officials, executives and engineers redesigned the system. Aegis has gone from an almost forgotten ship-defense system to the raison d’être for the Navy’s shipbuilding program.
Other programs, too, enjoy reinforcement, regardless of the speed-of-Internet discussion that stems from Fiscal 2010 budget recommendations. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense System may see the number of Alaskan and Californian silos curbed, but the full number of interceptors previously planned will still be built so they can be used for parts and modernization, boosting GMD’s reliability. The Airborne Laser may not enter production, but the Pentagon wants the technology pursued. Partnerships with Israel and Japan are flourishing, and NATO has called for an alliance-wide capability. U.S. programs claim Everest-like learning curves with each test.
There is much to be proven by missile defense, and much to be expected. We should trust and verify.