The Pentagon is completing strategic planning guidance for the preparation of a 2006 defense budget, and some important changes are apparent. Gone is the notion that the U.S. is in the midst of a “strategic pause” during which it can afford to take risks while transforming its military forces for the threats of tomorrow. There is greater emphasis on innovations that have a near-term payoff, especially in countering unconventional adversaries such as Al Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq.
But in at least one area, the priorities have not been reordered — missile defense. The Bush Administration remains committed to providing the nation and its forward-deployed forces with active defenses against attack by ballistic missiles. That shouldn’t come as any surprise, because missile defense has been a priority of every Republican Administration since Sputnik first heralded the arrival of the missile age in 1957.
The threat has changed since the Cold War. There are more countries with ballistic missiles and their behavior is less predictable. On the other hand, no nation (including Russia) has a missile force that begins to approach the power of the Soviet arsenal at its zenith. So missile defense has become both more desirable and more feasible. Feasibility is further enhanced by new defensive technologies (sensors, interceptors, communications links), which are improving at a faster pace than the missiles they must stop.
The question the administration must address is which of these technologies should be stitched together into an integrated architecture. It inherited a patchwork of theater and national missile-defense programs from its predecessors that must be “deconflicted” in operational and budgetary terms. Lasers seem to be gradually falling out of the plan, but that still leaves half a dozen more conventional systems in need of rationalization.
It seems clear that the administration should stick with plans to build a first line of land-based defenses in Alaska to protect the homeland. It also needs to keep Navy plans on track to develop defenses of forward-deployed forces using Aegis radars and an upgraded Standard missile. But those are near-term solutions to a long-term challenge. What should it do to bolster the performance of the overall system against increasingly capable adversaries?
There appears to be only one answer: the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). That is the one new program begun during the Bush years that can intercept hostile missiles early in their trajectories — before they have released decoys and multiple warheads that make defense much harder. By thinning out attacks early on, KEI would greatly improve the effectiveness of later layers in the defensive system. And because it will be deployed in mobile mode on land and at sea, it can be easily moved as threats shift. Combining KEI with the Alaska and sea-based systems already under development would provide a true layered defense — the kind of system that can offer real protection of friends, and real deterrence of enemies.
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