With America’s economy facing the worst outlook in three generations, it isn’t hard to figure out where the next administration — the Obama Administration — will focus most of its attention. What could be worse than credit markets collapsing just as baby boomers are about to retire? Well, here’s something a lot worse: losing a million of those baby boomers, and their kids, in a nuclear attack. That danger has been with us since the dawn of the nuclear age, but it grew worse over the last eight years as the Bush Administration botched efforts to slow the spread of nuclear weapons. Because of its mis-steps in Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and elsewhere, we are facing a more diverse and unpredictable nuclear danger than ever before.
The nuclear threat was bigger during the cold war if you’re just counting warheads, but it was also simpler back then because we didn’t have to worry about nuts like Kim Jong-il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As long as Russia (and later China) was deterred by the threat of overwhelming retaliation, we could convince ourselves we were safe. Not now. Who really understands the thought process of Kim Il-Sung’s ne’er-do-well son, or the islamic nationalists who might one day rule Pakistan? Even if they’re rational — which is assuming a lot, based on past behavior — they still might be accident prone, or given to mis-calculation in assessing U.S. behavior. So deterrence the way we used to practice it is a declining franchise, at least when it comes to the growing club of nuclear arrivistes popping up around the world.
Which means there really is no alternative to missile defense, a conclusion the Clinton Administration reached ten years ago. And in that regard, there actually is some good news. The Bush Administration has invested enough money in missile defense (about 2% of the defense budget) so that the new administration will inherit programs capable of defeating the kind of arsenals nuclear upstarts such as North Korea possess. Some of these programs, like the missile-defense capabilities of Navy Aegis destroyers, are available on warfighting systems that serve a host of other missions too, making them real bargains. They’re useless against an all-out Russian strategic attack, but they can cope with most of the other threats we face today.
The problem is tomorrow. U.S. intelligence has detected new kinds of threats such as maneuvering warheads that will make it increasingly difficult to achieve interception once warheads have separated from rocket boosters and released penetration aids such as decoys. Of course, critics of missile defense always predicted this would happen. But when the enemy is not deterrable, you still need a defensive response. Which means hitting them early in their trajectory — either before boosters cut off (boost phase), or between cut off and warhead release (ascent phase).
The Missile Defense Agency has been funding several programs that could intercept hostile missiles in boost or ascent phase. One is the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), an agile, high-acceleration system that can get close to launch sites because of its mobility. Another is the Airborne Laser (ABL), which will be able to strike lofting missiles above the clouds at the speed of light using a laser from hundreds of kilometers away. A third program is the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE), an inexpensive modification of the main air-to-air missile carried on U.S. fighters that could be ready to intercept enemy missiles by the end of President Obama’s first term. Other options exist. The cost of these programs is so modest, and the threat to America from emerging nuclear actors is so great, that the new administration needs to figure out how to keep them going regardless of what happens to the economy in the years ahead.
Find Archived Articles: