Sometime this autumn the Obama Administration will announce it is abandoning plans to build a missile-defense complex in Eastern Europe. Since the administration has repeatedly warned of the danger posed by Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, the White House will have to offer some alternate vision of how U.S. allies and forward-deployed forces can be defended against the emerging threat.
Most of the possibilities have limitations. Sea-based defenses such as the Aegis combat system equipped with SM-3 missiles require favorable geography. Land-based defenses such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense require favorable political circumstances (basing access). They’re great programs, but something more will be needed. The something more presumably is air-based missile defenses that are less constrained by geography and politics.
Ten years from now, the Airborne Laser (ABL) could offer the best solution, despite reservations expressed by Secretary Gates when he trimmed the program on April 6. ABL is intrinsically more versatile than other approaches to missile defense, and in many scenarios cheaper. But it isn’t ready. Which leaves the various air-launched hit-to-kill concepts explored in a recent Air Force white paper.
The most promising such concept is the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE), which despite its tongue-twisting name is a low cost, quick-reaction capability that can be carried on virtually any U.S. fighter. In fact, it’s a modified version of an air-to-air missile already carried on those fighters, which gets its missile-killing capability through clever networking of assets already in the joint force. NCADE could be operational before the end of President Obama’s first term, probably at a lower cost than any alternative — so it’s as good a fit for the emerging fiscal environment as the threat environment.
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