Consideration of the growing threat posed by ballistic and cruise missiles in the hands of this country’s enemies and competitors reminds me of Winston Churchill’s trenchant observation about this country: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” Since the idea of developing a defense against such weapons was raised by President Reagan in 1983, the United States has tried every other way of addressing this threat short of serious missile defenses. While arms control has radically reduced the central threat posed by the Soviet Union’s massive nuclear arsenal, the vision of Global Zero is, if anything, farther away today than it was when President Obama took office. Nuclear weapons states are designing and deploying more capable launch systems and missiles. New players, both so-called rogue regimes and terrorist groups, have acquired arsenals of ballistic missiles. Having tried everything else, it is time to get serious about missile defenses both at home and abroad.
We are fortunate, in a sense, that for a long time our rather dilatory pursuit of defensive capabilities was matched by the pace of threat evolution. You might recall that the Report of the 1997 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, the so-called Rumsfeld Commission, warned that adversaries such as North Korea and Iran could deploy a long-range ballistic missile, including one capable of reaching the United States, within five years of the decision to do so. Russia was held back from modernizing its strategic nuclear arsenal for more than a decade by domestic political instability and a lack of resources.
With respect to North Korea, the timeline may have been off somewhat but not the direction it was heading. Playing the role of tortoise, this country has made rather steady progress not only towards acquiring and improving their nuclear weapons but on developing a variety of delivery systems. The past several years have seen a notable acceleration of Pyongyang’s activities to include the successful test of an ICBM surrogate as a space launch vehicle and, perhaps most alarming, of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. One long-time observer of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs warned that it may have as many as 100 nuclear arms in five years and become capable of mounting them on a range of road-mobile missiles. There is something particularly frightening about the intersection of a young and inexperienced leader and his country’s expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.
Similarly, Iran has kept its eye on the ball with respect to developing the infrastructure and knowledge with which to build nuclear weapons and increasing the number and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces. Teheran now has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the region. Its longer range missiles already can reach Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. By the end of the decade, Iranian missiles could be capable of reaching Western Europe and possibly even the east coast of the United States.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the specter of a great power confrontation and conflict is again dominating our strategic considerations. When asked by an interviewer whether she takes Russian President Vladimir Putin at his word that he wants peace, National Security Advisor Susan Rice responded, “How dumb do I look? No. In all seriousness, no.” As if on cue, the new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter made public what had already been known among defense and intelligence analysts: that Moscow was guilty of violating the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. “Russia’s continued disregard for its international obligations and lack of meaningful engagement on this particular issue require the United States to take actions to protect its interests and security, as well as those of its allies and partners.”
Russia has an ambitious program to modernize its intercontinental and theater ballistic missile forces. Russian leaders boast of completely turning over its fleet of silo-based, road and rail mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and replacing them with modern and more capable systems, including a new heavy ICBM, within the next five years. The Russian Navy plans to deploy eight or nine new Borey-class nuclear submarines armed with the new Bulova long-range ballistic missile. A new long-range bomber and advanced nuclear cruise missile are also in the works. Furthermore, the Russian massive arsenal of theater nuclear weapons has seen the addition of the Iskander INF-compliant ballistic missile.
China has steadily modernized its long-range missile force while devoting more attention to increasing both the quantity and quality of its arsenal of theater ballistic and cruise missiles. Included in this array are anti-ship cruise missiles and the infamous “aircraft carrier killer” the DF-21. The People’s Liberation Army’s arsenal of well over 1,000 theater ballistic and cruise missiles is capable of overwhelming the limited number of United States and allied bases in the region.
This country’s current or prospective adversaries — North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, Hezbollah and Hamas — are in the midst of major programs to increase both the quantity and quality of their ballistic missile arsenals. Unless the United States is willing to be driven away from regions of interest and off the high seas, it needs to get serious about both national and theater missile defense.
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