Sometime this summer or fall, the Pentagon will announce that the ballistic-missile defense system the Bush Administration has been building in Alaska and California is operational. That declaration will be greeted with a great deal of partisan rhetoric — Democrats decrying the deployment of “unproven technology,” Republicans claiming credit for “defending the homeland.” Regardless of which viewÂpoint you favor, one fact will be undeniable: President Bush has delivered on his campaign promise of four years ago to build a real system, rather than just doing R&D. But Bush never said what would follow the initial deployment, and military priorities have changed. So what happens next?
Despite the plumes of overheated rhetoric that will spout when initial operating capability is proclaimed, missile defense is gradually outgrowing the ideological disputes of the past. There are two basic reasons for this. First, the threat has become more diverse and less predictable, so our confidence about deterring aggression has diminished. U.S. policymakers may have over-estimated how well they understood Soviet leaders during the Cold War, but they aren’t making the same mistake when it comes to interpreting the actions of rulers in Pyongyang and Teheran. If there’s one thing that 9-11 proves, it’s that we don’t grasp what motivates some people.
Second, the threat has become less potent, so the feasibility of effective defense has increased. Rather than having to cope with thousands of sophisticated Soviet warheads, defenders now need to counter a small number of relatively primitive weapons originating from a handful of rogue states. Given the numerous technological advances achieved since communism’s collapse, this mission looks do-able. Indeed, the scale of likely threats is so modest that even the thin defense being built in Alaska and California may be sufficient to dissuade some problem-states from pursuing long-range ballistic missiles. But beyond building out the Alaska “midcourse” defense and deploying similar defenses at sea, two further steps are needed.
In terms of dealing with ballistic missiles, the most important step is to acquire some method of intercepting missiles in their vulnerable “boost” or ascent phase — before they have released multiple warheads, decoys, and other items that complicate the task of interception. The U.S. has two such systems in development — the futuristic Airborne Laser and the versatile Kinetic Energy Interceptor. Both programs should be funded, because the success of either virtually assures the effectiveÂness of the Alaska system in a layered defensive architecture. Whatever is missed in boost phase can be picked off by the Alaska system, providing in-depth defense against ballistic threats.
In addition, something needs to be done about non-ballistic missiles — the cruise missiles that are proliferating around the world. Past experience suggests that as U.S. ballistic-missile defenses improve, adversaries will try to acquire low-flying, stealthy cruise missiles that can circumvent the ballistic shield. The Bush Administration has been nearly blind to this danger, but a handful of programs such as the Air Force’s E-10 surveillance plane and the Navy’s E-2C Advanced Hawkeye are being equipped for tracking cruise missiles. The nation needs a balanced defensive posture, which means taking the growing cruise-missile danger seriously, even as we move to counter the more visible threat of ballistic missiles.
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