Yesterday, the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) failed to destroy an incoming intermediate-range target missile launched from Kwajalein Atoll. This is the third major missile defense test failure in the past two years and the second in which both the target missile and interceptor successfully launched only to see the latter unable to home in on the former. Such failures would be of concern under any normal circumstances. What makes this most recent failure particularly troublesome is the fact that the United States is totally dependent on the National Missile Defense (NMD) architecture with its 30 GBIs in Alaska and California for defense of the homeland against long-range ballistic missiles. As we confront an increasingly belligerent North Korea who has made public its continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, our ineffectual NMD is nothing less than a national security catastrophe.
The NMD system in general, and the GBI, in particular, have been the Missile Defense Agency’s problem children for many years. Part of the problem was continual disagreement in the Pentagon and the White House regarding the goal of the program. There was a rush to deployment in the aftermath of President Bush’s decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The desire was to get silos built and missiles deployed rapidly in order to change the facts on the ground and make missile defenses of the homeland a central part of the emerging post Cold War strategic environment. The administration rushed the project, even deploying GBIs that were essentially prototypes with little in common with the planned production missiles that would not be deployed for years to come. The program has been rushing to catch up to its politics for years now.
The Obama Administration revised the Bush-era plan for missile defenses. It placed less emphasis on defense against very long-range ballistic missiles and more on proliferating defenses against short and intermediate-range missiles, arguing that these posed the greater threat. The administration cancelled the so-called Third Site which would have placed ten GBIs in silos in Eastern Europe. It created the so-called Phased Adaptive Architecture which envisioned the sequential deployment forward of a mix of sea and land-based missile defenses based largely on improved versions of the THAAD and Aegis ballistic missile defense systems.
But the administration’s strategic approach to missile defense requires a functioning NMD capability. The United States cannot be placed in the position either by North Korea or any other two-bit dictatorship or repressive theocratic state of having to risk trading an American city to meet a nuclear threat against, for example, Seoul, Tokyo or Tel Aviv. As a result, even if it deploys robust theater missile defenses, U.S. security requires that the homeland be protected by a functional, if limited, NMD.
The Missile Defense Agency needs to be held to account for this string of GBI failures. It makes no sense for Secretary Gates and the Congress to penalize other programs for lesser technical failures or for Nunn-McCurdy breaches caused by changes in acquisition plans by the government but allow this travesty to pass unremarked. The administration needs to invest the resources to ensure a viable GBI capability. It also needs to investigate ways of accelerating the Phased Adaptive Architecture to ensure that defenses capable of engaging very long-range ballistic missiles can be deployed as soon as possible. If we cannot go after such ballistic missile threats with interceptors based in the continental United States, the only feasible alternative is to pursue boost-phase options.
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