Next year will be the thirtieth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the program intended to make ballistic missiles impotent and obsolete. Over the ensuing three decades, much has changed. The Soviet Union is no more. The deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers shrank by almost 90 percent. Only three nations have developed nuclear weapons and none of these has yet produced an intercontinental range missile. A growing number of countries have deployed theater ballistic missiles. And missile defenses have become a reality.
From a research program that critics dubbed “Star Wars,” SDI has evolved from a somewhat cosmic vision of an all encompassing defense in space, at sea, on land and in the air into a set of very credible systems. The National Missile Defense system, which consists of early warning satellites, ground-based radar and some 30 interceptors deployed in Alaska and California, offers a limited defense of the U.S. homeland against a small attack. Against shorter-range ballistic missiles, the United States is deploying the Patriot PAC-3, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and both ship-borne and land-based Aegis BMD systems with the Standard Missile 3. By 2017, the Department of Defense (DoD) plans to have more than 30 Aegis BMD-capable ships in service along with two batteries of Aegis Ashore, 4 THAAD batteries and some 15 Patriot battalions each with several PAC-3 capable launchers.
With so much metal being deployed, it is more than a little curious that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is the organization responsible for acquiring the missiles and upgrading the sensors and battle management systems. In fact, this is a unique circumstance. Under Title 10, military services are responsible for acquiring platforms and weapons. In the case of programs that benefit two or more services, DoD designates one of them as the lead to manage development and procurement. The nice thing about the current arrangement for the services is that the cost of procurement doesn’t come out of their budgets. Instead, it is covered by MDA.
It is way past time for the military to take responsibility for acquiring, maintaining and even upgrading missile defenses. In addition, it is time for DoD to get serious about acquiring enough SM-3s and THAAD missiles to fill the available magazine spaces. According to published reports, DoD has acquired only half the number of SM-3s needed to meet Combatant Commander requirements. The latest DoD budget also reduced the planned number of THAAD batteries. In return for giving up its responsibilities for buying interceptors, MDA should be freed up to focus on developing the next set of capabilities such as the more advanced versions of the SM-3, an improved Ground Based Interceptor, directed energy weapons, space-based interceptors and airborne sensors.
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