On Sunday the Missile Defense Agency conducted a successful test of the latest Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) built by Raytheon for the National Missile Defense system. It’s an arcane program that few people understand outside the missile-defense community, but one day it could turn out to be far more important to America’s security than the current controversy over what to do in Iraq. The reason why is that EKV and the Ground-based Midcourse Defense of which it is a part is the only real protection the nation has against an attack using long-range ballistic missiles. The success of the test means that the missile agency is on track to deploy 44 interceptors in California and Alaska by 2017 — enough to counter a small attack on the West Coast by North Korea or China.
The EKV program has had its ups and downs over 20 years of development, which is to be expected when a system has to physically impact nuclear warheads moving at several miles per second. By employing hit-to-kill technology, EKV achieves a clean kill that does not interfere with other facets of the defensive effort in a way that explosive kill mechanisms might. Planners have found that there’s little advantage to killing one incoming warhead with an explosive interceptor if the result is to confuse defenders as to the location of other warheads in a multi-weapon attack. So challenging though EKV might be, it is the best solution the government has for dealing with the threat of long-range ballistic missile attacks.
Someday, scholars will look back at this period in American history and be aghast at how myopic policymakers were about the nuclear threat. With literally thousands of warheads aimed at the U.S. and the number of nuclear-capable powers growing, Washington has elected to rely on a policy of deterrence as its main way of assuring national survival. Deterrence — the art of averting aggression by threatening dire consequences — will not last forever. One day, nuclear weapons will be launched against America. Perhaps the leaders ordering the attack will be crazy, or merely prone to miscalculation. Maybe it will be an accident, or an unauthorized act resulting from a breakdown in the chain of command.
When that day comes, the insanity of relying on deterrence will be all too clear. Instead of wasting a trillion dollars on failed states like Iraq and Afghanistan that can never be fixed, what if we had spent some of that money on building real defenses against nuclear attack? By this time, the Pentagon and private industry might have found ways of evening up the cost-exchange ratio, so it isn’t cheaper to add more warheads than interceptors. Even if they hadn’t, Americans would still have more robust protection than we do today against the craziness of a country like North Korea. Instead, we have spent 1-2% of our defense budget in recent years on missile defense, and 10-20% on hopeless cases like Iraq. We need to get our military priorities straight — and showing more sense of urgency about expanding the Ground-based Midcourse Defense with an improved EKV is a good place to start.
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