assessments

U.S.: The Real Reason Behind Ballistic Missile Defense

6 MINS READJun 18, 2007 | 14:44 GMT
U.S. Missile Defense Agency
Summary
The U.S. ballistic missile defense system slated for Poland and the Czech Republic has been continually touted as intended to counter long-range Iranian missiles — which is true — but it is also entirely consistent with long-term U.S. strategy.
Washington has spent the last six months trying to convince the world that the expansion of the nascent U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system into Europe poses no threat to Russia's strategic deterrent, but rather is only intended to counter Iran and other Middle Eastern threats. The U.S. claims are accurate — for now. In 1998, the world was stunned when North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 that very nearly put its payload into orbit. Through force of willpower, persistence and innovation, North Korean engineers effectively built an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with little more than Scud missile technology (which essentially is little more than World War II-era German V-2 technology). That launch provided a signpost for the future of strategic security since, if North Korea could do it in 1998, almost any nation in the world might be in a position to threaten the continental United States in the next 50 years. Washington has now placed a rudimentary ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system in Alaska to counter the North Korean threat. The same system is slated for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter a similar threat from Iran in the near future. Such a BMD system accomplishes three things: 1. It protects the United States from a small-scale rogue missile launch from very specific regions of the world. 2. It undermines the use of a yet-to-exist Iranian or North Korean ICBM as a negotiating tool. 3. It deters the development of such systems (which represent a huge national investment for countries like Iran and North Korea). While the U.S. plan is all well and good, is it worth the price? There is certainly an economic argument in favor of BMD. If the system stopped a nuclear missile from striking a large U.S. city, then the costs of development (already at some $110 billion since former President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative) would pale in comparison to post-nuclear-strike reconstruction costs. But building a crude nuclear device is difficult enough. The specialized materials and technical skill required to miniaturize a weapon and harden it against the strain of launch, the cold of space and the heat of re-entry is prohibitive for all but a handful of nations. If BMD is to be understood as a defense against nuclear terrorism, then there are far more likely scenarios to be considered, and the massive investment would be better spent elsewhere — such as on port security, where a much more rudimentary device could be slipped into the United States. The true utility of BMD is measured by its congruence with the five imperatives that have dominated U.S. strategy for the better part of two centuries: 1. maintaining control over North America 2. securing strategic depth for the continental United States 3. controlling sea approaches to North America 4. dominating the oceans 5. keeping Eurasia divided BMD is not just consistent with one of these themes; it is the logical outgrowth of three of them, and has contributed incidentally to a fourth (e.g., rivalries within Eurasia). At the end of the 19th century, Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan advocated the foundational importance to U.S. geopolitical security of a strong Navy. Now as in Mahan's time, the U.S. Navy provides North America the buffer that has been the foundation of U.S. geopolitical security and stability since the mid-1900s. BMD will help secure the same strategic depth for the continental U.S. and extend control of the sea approaches and dominance of the ocean into space. So while Iran tries to cobble together a few more centrifuges and Russia rattles its saber, Washington is extending its technological military dominance across and above the same oceans that have protected it for the better part of two centuries — and building the foundations for a far more capable BMD system. Follow-on technology will dramatically improve what is now a barely-functional system. It can become more robust, flexible and mobile. Specific land-based sites will eventually become more or less irrelevant. The current debate therefore is extremely shortsighted. In the long term, BMD is about one thing: space. Poland and the Czech Republic are about to be equipped with the rudimentary technological precursor to a series of systems that are truly the technological beginnings of the full-fledged national missile defense shield Reagan once envisioned. These incremental steps — of which nascent BMD systems extending across both the Atlantic and Pacific are only an early instance — will attempt to solidify for the U.S. military the same dominance of space that it now enjoys on the planet's blue water, and in so doing extend Mahan's vision of North American continental security from the steam-powered warship to the anti-satellite weapon. And therein lies the true leap. BMD is not just about missiles; it is about the technology and sensors necessary to dominate space. The U.S. Air Force already has a claim to that dominance of space. But it is currently a fragile dominance — perhaps less fragile than open sources would suggest, but far more fragile than most realize. Space-based assets are a keystone of the Pentagon's technological superiority. The United States has been so successful in this realm, in fact, that it is becoming a cornerstone of U.S. economic prosperity. This dependence creates a potentially significant vulnerability, however, meaning the ability to counter an anti-satellite weapon launched via missile is of direct relevance to the next generation of BMD technology. BMD is also about the capability to deny the utility of space to adversaries (in accordance with the official 2004 Air Force Counterspace Operations doctrine). The difference between intercepting a ballistic missile warhead 500 miles above the earth and hitting a satellite at the same altitude is simple: It is harder to hit the ballistic missile warhead. Thus, the debate about placing a BMD radar in the Czech Republic, and the distinction between Poland and Azerbaijan, is immaterial in the long run. The United States is pushing ahead with the technological development and operational deployment necessary to build the knowledge base and technical capacity to take these next steps toward not only defending itself in space, but also fighting there.

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