It is now nearly half a century since the Soviet Union tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, obliterating the distances that had long been America’s main defense against foreign aggression. Ever since that bleak day in 1957, U.S. leaders have sought a solution to the unprecedented vulnerability the nation faced. Programs such as Nike-Zeus, Sentinel and Safeguard have come and gone. Technology has advanced and threats have changed. But America has remained vulnerable.
Yesterday’s decision to proceed with development of a “Kinetic Energy Interceptor” is the clearest signal yet of the Bush Administration’s determination to finally meet the challenge of missile defense. The Missile Defense Agency selected a Northrop Grumman-Raytheon team to build the system, which will greatly enhance the overall effectiveness of the administration’s defensive posture by intercepting ballistic missiles is their initial boost phase.
Boost-phase interception offers the biggest payoff in missile defense because it destroys missiles before they can release multiple warheads and penetration aids that greatly complicate the task facing defenders. By thinning out the attack long before it approaches America or allied countries, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor would bolster the performance of later layers in the defensive shield such as the ground-based interceptors now being deployed in Alaska.
No defense is perfect, but if both the Kinetic Energy Interceptor and the Alaska system achieve 80% effectiveness — a relatively modest goal — then only one out of every 25 attacking missiles would manage to get past both layers. In a small attack of ten or fewer missiles, such as the kind that Iran or North Korea might one day mount, no missiles at all might succeed is penetrating a layered defense. Boost-phase interception is the key to assuring such as outcome, which makes yesterday’s decision very important.
Although designers have long understood the synergy of layered defense, recent developments have made it more feasible. First, the huge Soviet nuclear threat of Cold War years has been replaced by smaller but more diverse enemies, some of whom may not be deterable. Thus, the task of missile defense has become more manageable even as the need for defense has grown. Second, rapid progress in information technologies has made defensive systems more agile, precise and lethal. The Kinetic Energy Interceptor represents a convergence of these two trends.
In its first phase, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor will be a mobile, land-based system that can be quickly deployed overseas on a few C-17 cargo jets (two such deployments could cover all the missile sites in North Korea). Later phases will allow it to be deployed at sea — on warships, submarines or Navy supply ships. In either mode, it will provide a big boost to the nation’s defenses, bolstering the effectiveness of every other missile defense system while providing unique leverage none of them can match.
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