Today marks the beginning of a new federal fiscal year, and it doesn’t take great insight to grasp that this year’s budget deliberations are likely to be a bit different from those of previous years.
For starters, many believe that the economy is teetering on the edge of collapse, and that after eight years of rapid growth in public and private debt, a prolonged period of de-leveraging has begun.
If that is true, then policymakers are likely to look to the nation’s defense posture for some of the savings necessary to put government expenditures into closer alignment with tax receipts.
So now is a good time to ask which military missions deserve to receive the highest priority going forward, and which can become bill-payers for more pressing needs.
Lexington Institute is sponsoring today’s conference in part because we believe ballistic missile defense is one of the missions which must continue to receive highest national priority.
Of course, you could argue that it isn’t one mission at all, since it addresses a range of vital military goals from defense of the homeland to protection of forward-deployed forces to support of global deterrence.
However you view it, though, there is little doubt that the ballistic-missile forces of potential aggressors pose the single most urgent military threat to America’s security — not just to the safety of our surface fleet and forward bases around the world, but to the very survival of our nation.
Against that backdrop, I would like to begin today’s conference by describing what I think are the two greatest changes that have occurred in the missile-defense mission area since President Reagan first proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative a quarter-century ago.
One change has to do with the requirements of nuclear deterrence, and the other has to do with the evolving character of conventional warfare.
The change in the nuclear equation is that our capacity to defend against ballistic-missile attack has increased while our capacity to make offensively-based deterrence work has decreased.
The reason active defense is more feasible today is that we have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in relevant technologies at the same time that a number of thinly-equipped nuclear players have appeared on the global landscape.
The new players have only a handful of missiles and those missiles lack sophisticated penetration aids, so there is a real possibility that our improved defensive capabilities could mitigate or negate a nuclear attack.
But that is only half the story on the nuclear front.
The other part of the story is that as nuclear-weapons technology has spread to an ever-increasing number of countries, our ability to interpret and respond appropriately to the behavior of potential aggressors has diminished.
We may have grossly misunderstood Russian and Chinese motivations during the cold war, but one thing we could say for sure back then was that there were only two nuclear players we really needed to worry about.
Today we also have to worry about North Korea and Pakistan, and tomorrow there may be over a dozen significant players.
Understanding each of those actors on its own terms will be very difficult, and understanding their interactions in the midst of a high-stakes crisis will be nearly impossible.
So the intricate signaling that underpinned offensively-based deterrence in the old days is becoming harder and harder, because there are too many players with divergent interests and we don’t understand them the way we thought we once understood the Russians.
For instance, one analyst has recently proposed that the Iranian theocracy is led by men bent upon provoking a divinely-inspired apocalypse.
I have no idea whether that’s really true, but in the old days there wasn’t much doubt that the Soviets wished to survive.
As the growing diversity of prospective adversaries begins to call into question fundamental assumptions about how offensively-based deterrence can work, we have to seriously consider the possibility that it might not — that it might fail because mistakes are made, or because other players aren’t as committed to nuclear stability as we are.
Thus, we need ballistic-missile defense more now than we did in the past, since there is less confidence that the traditional approach to nuclear deterrence will avert war.
The second big change that has unfolded in the missile-defense mission area over the past 25 years has been the marked improvement in the capacity of potential adversaries to use conventionally-armed ballistic missiles in a precise and flexible manner.
This trend manifested itself initially as improved accuracy in purely ballistic warheads, but it now is progressing into the appearance of maneuvering warheads with homing sensors and other advanced features.
The trend involves much more than just the missiles themselves.
Countries such as China are gradually assembling an integrated network of overhead and surface sensors that have the ability to detect and track moving targets at considerable distance.
When said sensors are combined with maneuvering ballistic warheads of the kind that China is currently testing, they raise real doubts about the survivability of U.S. forward-deployed forces.
It was precisely this concern that recently convinced the Navy to abandon its planned Zumwalt class of land attack destroyers and revert to production of the earlier DDG-51 warship.
Navy leaders told Congress that the DDG-51 with its Aegis combat system was better suited to coping with emerging missile threats.
In the future, all of America’s forward-deployed forces will have to worry about the danger posed by highly accurate conventional ballistic missiles, and thus they will need to field far more capable defenses.
In some places, such as the Western Pacific, U.S. forces might encounter attacks by hundreds of such missiles, equipped with warheads designed to produce a range of tailored effects.
So it is no surprise that both major presidential candidates acknowledge in their national-security pronouncements the need to field advanced missile defenses, because both at the strategic and the tactical levels, the ballistic-missile danger is greater now than it has ever been before.
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