BY J. MICHAEL BARRETT
Iran recently flight-tested two long-range ballistic missiles, ominously undermining nuclear negotiations with the West. North Korea is hardly backing off its nuclear and missile developments, either. The Hermit Kingdom recently conducted a third nuclear test and has restarted a uranium enrichment facility.
Today, more than 30 nations have ballistic missiles that can strike the United States, its allies or American troops stationed abroad. Meanwhile recent events in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine demonstrate all too well that in this fast-paced world, threats can materialize quickly.
This is a critical moment for defending the U.S. role in international security. America and her allies must continue to invest in missile defense technologies, lest one day an adversary feels compelled to strike.
Our leaders have a duty to protect the homeland from long-range ballistic missile attack. At present, there is just one system that protects America from these threats — Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD). The GMD is our premier defense against a potential nuclear attack and also can help protect our troops stationed overseas.
Using a complex system of radars, the GMD picks up incoming missiles and launches interceptors to respond. Though the entire GMD “system” is responsible for taking down a threat, it’s the warhead atop the interceptor, the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), that garners the most attention.
The EKV’s job is to fly into space and strike its target. This literally is rocket science.
The system has performed successfully in multiple tests, most recently in June. But in some early tests, it failed to intercept incoming missiles. The reason, without question, was the rush to deploy the system. This was sparked by the revelation that North Korea had joined the nuclear weapons club. At the time, EKV was barely beyond the proof-of-concept stage. Since then, a lack of funding for redesign and testing left the program floundering over the last 10 years. So some policymakers have suggested going back to the drawing board and designing an entirely new kill vehicle from scratch.
Given the time, cost, and performance constraints, this doesn’t make sense.
It seems that we have finally woken up to a crisis of our own creation. President Obama’s recently proposed defense budget allocates more than $700 million to improve this critical system, and Vice Adm. Syring has stated that the funding will get the EKV past the finish line and turn it into a “reliable, producible, quality design that … [paces] the threat to the future.”
Significantly, examples abound of defense systems that were blighted by technological challenges and testing failures. That includes the “THAAD” and “Standard Missile” systems, both of which are now vital elements of the American defense shield. They each had testing issues in their first development cycle. We didn’t give up then; we shouldn’t give up now.
GMD is the only operational system we have against long-range ballistic-missile attack. The EKV is fixable, but like all ABM efforts it needs commitment from government and industry to make it happen. The only other near-term option would be to leave our citizens defenseless against rogue and unpredictable nations. That’s no option at all.
J. Michael Barrett is former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council. He is a principal with Diligent Innovations.