More countries have nuclear weapons today than ever before, and non-state actors are trying to join the trend. Deterrence of aggression using purely offensive forces is becoming trickier, and the U.S. therefore must strengthen its active defense of the homeland – beginning with the already deployed Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.
The U.S. has historically depended on deterrence and an assured second-strike capability to protect itself from nuclear attack. The strategic triad composed of intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles ensures that an opponent is not able to wipe out the U.S. nuclear arsenal in a surprise attack. In theory, America should possess the capability to inflict unacceptable damage with a retaliatory blow if it were attacked, thereby discouraging an aggressor from striking in the first place.
As the number of potential aggressors increases, however, Washington needs to assure that it is able to destroy at least some warheads headed for its homeland – whether launched intentionally or accidentally. If a missile could be intercepted and thus fails to reach its intended target, aggressors would be less likely to launch an intentional nuclear attack against America and may be less inspired to acquire nuclear weapons at all.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) deployed the GMD system in Alaska and California to address long-range missile threats primarily from North Korea, but its test failures have demonstrated the need for serious improvements. Admiral James D. Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has been clear in regards to specific upgrades crucial for the GMD system. During his discussions with DoD in preparing the agency’s fiscal 2015 funding request, Admiral Syring cited three improvements to enhance the capability of the GMD system: a new Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) design, a Long-Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), and other improvements in discrimination capability.
The MDA asked for $99.5 million to redesign the EKV — the actual component that destroys an incoming missile. The redesigned EKV would be able to better discriminate between warheads and decoys, kill a re-entry vehicle with a high degree of confidence, facilitate upgrades and broaden the vendor supply base. Admiral Syring pointed out that a redesigned EKV has been needed to increase reliability for some time and would have likely prevented test failures in the past three to four years.
The development of the LRDR will provide persistent sensor coverage to detect threats to the homeland from the Pacific theater and give the sea-based X-band radar more geographic deployment flexibility for contingency and test use. The MDA requested $79.5 million to make this radar a reality. The MDA did not provide much detail in regards to discrimination capability improvements, but it has requested $122 million to develop and field an integrated set of capabilities. Overall, these investments would address evolving threats by improving engagement capability, bolstering reliability, and expanding the use of off-board sensors.
Perfecting the GMD system is essential because it is the only system in place to protect parts of the homeland. Refining the reliability of the system would mean that it could then be replicated in additional locations across the country, such as on the East Coast, to provide protection against nuclear aggression. However, there is not much point in building other sites until the basic upgrades Admiral Syring has proposed are implemented.
Deterrence has become much more difficult in the post-Cold War era because it is no longer focused on one nation (the Soviet Union), and it would be a dangerous mistake to assume all nuclear states and non-state actors will respond in the same fashion. Instead, deterrence must be tailored to various potential aggressors to account for diverse value structures, perceptions and national objectives. This is a complicated balancing act that would be significantly bolstered with a back-up option – a powerful GMD system that could destroy incoming missiles headed for the U.S. After all, the GMD system is the only arrangement we have to defend the U.S. from a future nuclear attack, and it would be a tragedy without parallel in history if the system failed to protect the nation when deterrence one day fails.
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