missile-defenseby Peter Huessy

On Sunday June 22, high over the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing, the Joint Functional Component Command, Integrated Missile Defense, U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Navy successfully tested the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the nation’s Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) crashing a kill vehicle at nearly 15,000 kilometers an hour into a test warhead, while simultaneously performing discrimination tasks flawlessly.

The interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and intercepted a ballistic missile target launched from the U.S. Army’s Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

This means that for the 65th time since 2001, the US missile defense system successfully demonstrated “hit to kill” technology often described as hitting a “bullet with a bullet”.

According to a top missile defense expert in the House,

“The test clearly demonstrated the advancements made with the integrated missile defense system to detect, discriminate, and disintegrate the potential missile threats being development by countries such as North Korea and Iran.”

The professional staffer further noted:

“Watching the robust, multilayer sensor net control the engagement was proof the system is well on the way to achieving full military capability. Finally, the most impressive event was the performance of the second-generation kill vehicle to operate in a very complex environment and home-in flawlessly on the target.”

The success many believe will now bolster our current missile defenses in Alaska and California to counter current and potential nuclear-armed long range rocket arsenals in North Korea and Iran and give further support to the purchase of 14 additional rockets designed to also stop an accidental, deliberate or unauthorized launch (of a limited nature) from China or Russia.

The cost to do so over 5 years would be $1 billion, or about what the US government spends in 2 hours.  To date, the Congressional committees have approved these funds which would increase our national missile defense interceptors from 30 to 44, a nearly 50% increase in capability.

But a group of far left reporters, Hollywood big shots, arms control advocates and former US government officials, however, are working to not only delay adding 14 interceptors to the 30 we have already deployed, but seek to kill the current national missile defense system entirely.

They are the “missile defense deniers.” So confident were they that the June 22, 2014 test would fail that they published numerous articles in just the past week saying further test “failures” should surely end any further actual deployment of the system.


The opposition to national missile defense started over 30 years ago when President Ronald Reagan proposed in March 1983 that the US work over time to build the capability to shoot down incoming nuclear warheads so that deterrence did not rest solely on the threat of massive nuclear retaliation.

At the October 1986 Reykjavik summit with Soviet leader Gorbachev, President Ronald Reagan insisted that the US and allies must preserve missile defenses. He emphasized it was a critical insurance policy against rogue leaders building nuclear weapons to affix atop ballistic missiles. Concluded the President, in the absence of complete and general disarmament, missile defenses would be a critical protection for peaceful nations everywhere.


In 1991, however, the deniers thought they had proof that BMD didn’t work. The Patriot–an air defense deployed in the NATO theater– was on an emergency basis deployed in the Gulf during Desert Storm to protect our allies from Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles. In the Gulf War the Patriot system may have intercepted at best only some 30% of Saddam’s missile warheads.

Consequently, missile defense critics pounced. See, they said, missile defense doesn’t work, although they ignored that the Patriot system was not even designed as a missile defense system–it was an air defense for the European NATO Theater.

Ironically some of these same critics of missile defense had actually supported a legislated prohibition in 1981-3 of any effort by the then Reagan administration to give the original Patriot–an air defense system–a missile defense capability of any kind.

What was unanticipated was the effect of the Persian Gulf War on missile defense despite Patriots difficulty in shooting down Saddam’s Scuds. The Iraqi missiles killed over two dozen American soldiers then deployed in Saudi Arabia as part of the mission to liberate Kuwait.

Congress responded with both a push to deploy defenses against short and medium range rockets but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, also proposed ALPS—an accidental launch protection system– designed to stop an unauthorized or accidental launch of long range ICBMs against the US which might happen as a result of turmoil in the former Soviet Union as it broke apart with the end of the Cold War.

The Bush 41 administration had its own version of national missile defense called GPALS, or Global Protection Against Limited Strikes, which envisioned a defense of the US continent (CONUS) from strikes as large as 200 missiles.

Unfortunately, these efforts were short-lived. In 1993 in its first major defense initiative, the Clinton administration killed virtually all of the CONUS defenses while also cutting theater missile defense systems by nearly 40%.

But with the election of a Republican Congress in 1995, support for a national missile defense was rekindled especially given intelligence that showed North Korea working to get both a nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capability.

Even with the end of the Soviet empire and the emergence of rogue state missile arsenals, it was still not until 2002 that the US finally jettisoned the ABM Treaty which since 1972 had both prohibited the US from deploying defenses to protect the US homeland while also curtailing missile defense research. Why research what you couldn’t eventually deploy?


Why has it taken so long to deploy missile defenses of sufficient capability and number–both theater and national defenses? Primarily due to “missile defense deniers” who for nearly 35 years have sought to delay, curtail, eliminate, postpone or otherwise prevent missile defenses from being deployed by the US and its allies.

Their numerous arguments against missile defense have been repeatedly shown to be almost entirely without merit. But with considerable financial support–especially from foundations and individuals to the tune of over $100 million–perhaps as high as $200 million–in the past 30+ years, opponents have kept up a litany of complaints and criticisms of missile defense, the most common and popular which fall into two categories.


The major argument used by missile defense critics was that any US missile defenses would be seen by our enemies–primarily the Soviet Union, (then Russia) as well as China– as an attempt to undercut their nuclear retaliatory capability against us and therefore hurt deterrence. It would also spur additional “arms racing”, thus preventing both nuclear arsenals from being controlled or reduced while causing existing arsenals to expand greatly.

But when massive reductions in nuclear warheads were negotiated by President’s Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43, bringing the US and Russia arsenals down by 90%, even while the US was pursuing missile defenses, that argument was sufficiently weakened to remove one key obstacle to missile defense deployments.


The second most common argument by the deniers was a technical argument. It was claimed hitting a “bullet with a bullet” couldn’t work. The critics even invented cartoons that showed adversary nuclear warheads surrounded by pretend warheads or brightly colored Mylar balloons with little gas generators able to work while traveling 15,000 kilometers an hour through space in perfect formation. The fact that such decoys had never been built, tested or deployed was not mentioned by the cartoon ads, many of them used in the 1984 Presidential election campaign.

For example, in 1984, then former Vice President Mondale made killing missile defense the central defense plank of his presidential campaign. His campaign was replete with these expensive cartoons which showed all the hypothetical decoys our adversaries would be able to deploy (but never had!) to “fool” our missile defenses.

By 2000, an important plank of the Gore campaign platform was continued support for the ABM treaty (which prohibited a missile defense of CONUS) and opposition to what was described as an “unproven and ill-conceived missile defense” that if deployed would plunge the US and Russia “into a new arms race”.


Despite this opposition, progress toward deployment continued. Three key events were critical to deployment becoming a reality. First, Congress in 1999 passed a law saying the US had to deploy a missile defense of the US when we had the technical ability to do so (and that was primarily due to long range rogue state missile threats on the horizon). Second, President Bush in 2001 announced the US was withdrawing from the ABM treaty. And third the Bush administration and Congress agreed in 2002 to give the MDA, the Missile Defense Agency, authority to deploy an initial missile defense capability by 2004-5 now that the ABM treaty prohibition had been removed.

The missile defense deniers, on the other hand, assumed everyone agreed that because outer space is a vacuum, counter measures and decoys could not be distinguished from real warheads. Thus they argued, any mid-course defense, (what we were planning to deploy), that tried to intercept a warhead after decoys were also deployed–could simply not work. Ever. Basic physics principals simply could not be argued with, they complained.


In fact, according to the last three directors of the missile defense agency, tests to date have shown that indeed we can distinguish between decoys and counter-measures and the real warhead. In fact, one recent director told me that ground tests have shown our ability includes finding the warhead among many multiple countermeasures.

Sixty five successful test intercepts of ballistic missile warheads, especially the June 22 success which distinguished between the warhead and decoys, in addition to real world intercepts in both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, have now demonstrated “missile defense works”.


But the missile defense deniers have a clever counter-claim. While they cannot deny the tests have demonstrated success, they argue the tests are “rigged”. One former defense department bureaucrat with some testing knowledge ridiculed the entire missile defense program at a recent Atlantic Council forum, claiming all tests should actually be successful, given they are all rigged.

Here we need to explain what is going on. Testing long range rockets going some thousands of miles an hour requires some attention to safety. It’s called range safety. Therefore the folks that launch the target–the warhead we want to shoot down–know where it is going because if it goes beyond the confines of the test range it has to be destroyed for safety reasons.

Here the clever deniers help fool the folks. The deniers say “see, the tests are rigged” because they assumed the ground team that launched the warhead target, knowing where the target warhead is located, would of course tell those who launched the interceptor exactly where the target was going.

But they didn’t. And don’t. And never have.

The “kill vehicle” once told of the launch of such a target has to see it, acquire it, target it and then at closing speeds over 15000 miles an hour destroy it. In the real world, our interceptors will be warned by the DSP or Defense Support Program satellites that a hostile rocket has been launched at the United States. That is why we have satellites that will tell us this. They are called “bell ringers” in that they tell us what looks like a missile attack has been launched at us.

So no test has been rigged.


So even if you successfully shoot down the argument that missile defense doesn’t work, or that the tests are rigged, the deniers have further tricks up their sleeves. The deniers then say well even if missile defense works it’s still a bad deal.


Well a workable defense is a “shield” (defenses). And a reckless American President might then want to use the “sword” (offensive missiles and bombers for example) with which to attack our adversaries with impunity because the defense or “shield” would protect the US from retaliation.

Get it? The deniers turn reality on its head.

They transform America into the bad guys.

The American Security Project just published such an analysis that claimed North Korean missiles are solely to protect North Korea from—you guessed it– a US invasion.

Thus the missile defense deniers claim one reason North Korea or Iran are building missiles aimed at us and our allies is because we are building a defense–a shield–in the first place to which they are reacting. As the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick warned us 30 years ago, “They always blame America first”.


Many Americans of course understand who the real bad guys are. And once they understand America is not the bad actor, once again support for missile defense among the American public becomes widespread.

Having failed to justify the claim the US is the aggressor in the missile defense business, the deniers have another “fortune cookie analysis” they trot out. They say yes missile defense may work; and yes, the US should defend itself. But they claim, there is no “demonstrated threat”. They say, “Well, the North Koreans and Iranians haven’t ‘tested’ a missile with a nuclear weapon attached and demonstrated they can hit us.”

Neither did the state sponsors of terror and Al Qaeda test run airplanes into buildings prior to doing so in 2001.

And so has ensued a debate as to exactly what capability does NK or Iran have. And how much in advance should the US and its allies anticipate such threats so we are not caught defenseless when the threat fully matures.

The DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) says Iran has the means to test and develop an ICBM by 2015, a point reiterated by MDA Director Vice Admiral J.D. Syring in June 11, Senate testimony.

Peter Pry and James Woolsey—the former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI)–wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that NK launched its latest “satellite” in a southerly direction which demonstrated an ability by Pyongyang to orbit a junk satellite over the United States. That looks like an EMP nuclear threat capability to CONUS they conclude.

Given a defense has to anticipate an offensive missile threat, waiting to deploy defenses only after a North Korea or Iran have actually test fired an ICBM that lands a mock warhead in the East Harlem river might be cutting things a little close. Did not Britain and the US wait until Hitler invaded Poland and the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to take the threats from the Axis seriously?


Unfortunately, the Woolsey/Pry evidence the missile defense deniers along with their media friends, universally ignore. Instead they add another clever assumption to their catechism of denial. Which is even if the missile threats are real, it’s better not to build a missile defense than to build one.

Let me explain. When I asked one top arms control opponent of BMD, she said to me that building a defense for the continental US could be dangerous, even harmful. I asked why would that be the case? (For the record, her arms control organization had claimed in 2005 that “No defense is better than any defense”).

I asked her whether she agreed with this. She said “It depends”. “On what?” I asked. Well, she said, an American President with some missile defense in place might think it will work. Then such a President would be more easily persuaded to be reckless say with North Korea or Iran. That gets back to “First the shield and then the sword” argument. The argument is now made easy: it is the US that is the aggressor. Or potentially reckless.

And thus it becomes easy to argue that from such banana-headed logic comes the idea that “No defense is better than any defense”.


We started this essay with the review that the general deterrent relationship between nuclear armed adversaries–the US and the Soviets, now the Russians–with some 1550-2000 warheads aimed at each other–has a very elaborate history developed over 69 years of the Cold and post Cold War era.

We usually understand what the Russians are up to in their nuclear business and vice versa. Though we have moved beyond the mutual assured destruction or MAD relationship we had together through much of the Cold War, we still rely on our ability to have an assured second strike capability to deter the potential use of nuclear weapons, especially growing out of a crisis or conventional conflict.

But we do not have such an elaborate relationship with Iran or North Korea, or for that matter with China. And I would believe most Americans would wish never to be in a mutual hostage relationship with North Korea or Iran, or any other rogue state.


The former commander of our strategic nuclear forces, General (Ret) Kevin Chilton explained to me that we need to give any American President an option other than massive retaliation when confronted with nuclear threats. That option can include missile defense.

Thus under the cover of diplomacy an American President does not have to go to war. Missiles can be shot down. Pre-emption does not have to take place. Retaliation against civilian populations can be ruled out.

But without missile defenses, as General (Ret) Ron Kadish, the former MDA Director, explained recently, what do you tell the 200,000 dead folks in Los Angeles after you have struck back against a North Korean attack?

What do you say to the families and friends that yes indeed the US government really did have the ability to shoot down that warhead that detonated over LA?

But we did not build the defenses because we were worried about offending the Russians, or the Chinese, or the Iranians or the North Koreans.

Think that is a stretch? Hardly. One former DOD bureaucrat with testing review responsibility said just recently at the Atlantic Council that if the US and its NATO allies deploy the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense in Europe, ”Iran will feel betrayed”.

The “denier logic” that comes up with such doozies goes as follow. If the US is serious about negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons we would be assuming such a deal would be made soon and thus without nuclear warheads the Iranians would have little interest in building long range rockets able to reach Manhattan or Bonn or Paris.

The converse, of course, apparently did not occur to this same critic. If building ICBMs is synonymous with building nuclear weapons to be carried by such delivery vehicles, then Iran is definitely seeking nuclear weapons because what else does it propose to put on top of the very long range missiles it is working with North Korea so assiduously to build and deploy?!


Having failed to make a coherent argument against missile defense, the deniers are now relying heavily on a charge that the Bush 43 administration arbitrarily decided in 2002 to rush and deploy a missile defense to protect the nation by 2004-5 knowing the technology was not then available and the threat not there. This somehow is meant to justify opposition today to missile defense deployments no matter what evidence is now available.

But even that charge is not supported by the historical record.

In 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the Clinton missile defense would seriously consider missile defense. They proposed a program known as 3+3—3 years of research and development followed by 3 more years to deploy a national missile defense, only a year later than the Bush administration would decide to do in 2002. So what’s the beef? Clinton said we could deploy in 2005. Bush deployed in 2004.

Well the problem is this.

The North Korean’s launched a long range rocket in the summer of 1998, just a few weeks after the Rumsfeld Commission reported that a state such as North Korea or Iran had the capability to build a long range rocket in 5 years if they put sufficient effort into such a program and especially if they had foreign assistance.

The Commission did not say this was going to happen. They only highlighted that missile threats might very well materialize faster than traditional assessments had assumed.

In a relatively unknown side letter to the leaders of the House and Senate, the Commission members unanimously concluded that intelligence estimates were hampered by a very poor understanding of the current scope of missile programs especially those in rogue states.

The side letter detailed how in one briefing they were told by senior American intelligence officials that prior briefers to the Commission that had minimized the threat from ballistic missiles were so uninformed they did not even know about the data then being briefed to the Commission by the very next expert group that missile threats were growing and becoming more serious.

According to the Commission, some previous US intelligence estimates that no foreign missile threat existed relied heavily on a ‘cooking the books approach” which assumed no such foreign help would be available to rogue states and that threats to the United States did not include threats to Hawaii or Alaska–states closer to North Korea than California but nonetheless generally considered part of the United States.


But if in 1999 no such missile threat existed and if the conclusions of the Rumsfeld Commission were off base, why did the Clinton administration put forward a new plan to build national missile defenses? (Although many at the time thought the proposal wasn’t serious and was only put forward to give the administration political cover.)

The new plan–dubbed 3+3– was highly ironic in that in 1993 one of the Clinton administration’s first acts was to eliminate all funding for a national missile defense and cut close to 40% of the funding for theater missile defense systems. In addition 3+3 was really 3+ infinity when examined as there was little support or appetite for going forward with a serious defensive system among the administration and its supporters in Congress. It was a classic bait and switch.

But politics is politics so why not put something out there that people could pretend was a genuine program? A good test of the administration’s assumptions came in the summer of 2000. They faced a decision of whether to test or not to test an interceptor against a long range missile target.

It decided to stand down. The very missile defense deniers today cheered that decision as in 2000 they wanted nothing to do with a deployment decision to build such a defense, but they now complain not enough testing has been done of the current interceptors–the very technology system that could have been tested in the summer of 2000.

Missile defense deniers have always claimed threats are always over the horizon. However, a proven threat might be a surreptitiously delivered warhead over Manhattan from the maritime zones around America. As Rebeccah Heinrichs a noted missile defense analyst has explained, we have no radars looking south nor protective interceptors deployed to defend against such threats.

A third missile defense site or multiple additional sites at US military installations using both the improved GBI and kill vehicle as well as such options as the Aegis Standard Missile ashore approach and upgraded radars could defend major areas of the United States from both long range and maritime missile threats. Deployments of such fast interceptors would help defend against ICBM range missiles from Iran as well as maritime origin missiles where speed of intercept was crucial to a successful intercept .


In 2000, the US had deployed zero missile defense interceptors. Despite the intense opposition of the missile defense deniers, we have now deployed or are in the process of planning to deploy some 1400 interceptors here and abroad. Along with our allies in at least a dozen countries, the inventory of defenders now probably approaches 2000+.

Do the current 30 GBI interceptors require additional work? Yes of course they do as that was envisioned when the plan was started. A plan to develop the technology as we moved forward was adopted, called spiral development. The successful test on June 22, 2014 justifies such faith in that policy.

Could we also go to space based defenses? Of course but the missile defense deniers say we “can’t militarize space”. Could we build boost phase fast interceptors to get missiles before they release their decoys? Of course we could but all such programs have been terminated in the past 5 years–as the deniers applauded.

North Korea, Chinese, Russian or Iranian missiles can be instruments of terror, blackmail and coercion.

Terror weapons as the rockets launched from Gaza toward Israeli towns.

Blackmail rockets such as North Korean missiles that remain ready to go unless the ”protection racket” of fuel oil, food and other economic concessions are delivered to Pyongyang.

And coercion—Syrian rockets aimed at Turkey to keep Ankara from helping the Syrian rebels, or Iranian and Hezbollah rockets aimed at our Gulf and Middle East allies to prevent action being taken against Iran’s terrorist or nuclear facilities.

Or Russian missiles, part of their nuclear arsenal, tested repeatedly while its spetsnaz forces invade Ukraine along with tanks. Just so Kiev and NATO get the message.

Or Chinese missiles threatened to incinerate Los Angeles should the US decide to defend Taiwan.

Robert Kaplan is right that the arc from North Korea through the monsoon region of the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East contains indeed a series of “overlapping missile ranges” in a region of 3 billion people, ethnic and religious tensions and animosities and some 70%+ of the world’s conventional oil and gas resources.

To that missile defense is one key element of a serious and credible plan to “provide for the common defense”.

Perhaps sometime soon, we will finally never hear again: “No defense is better than any defense”.

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Peter Huessy is Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

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