Missile Defense: Now More Than Ever

Credit: Peter Brookes at Townhall Magazine

Just 10 years ago, there were only six nuclear weapons states. Today, there
are nine-with another country knocking on the door of the once-exclusive
atom-splitting club. 

Twenty-five years ago, nine countries had ballistic missiles. Today there
are nearly 30-not to mention that ballistic missile testing hit record
post-Cold War highs just last year.

Clearly, the ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
proliferation trend isn't positive. Despite this, a missile defense system
that would protect the homeland, American troops overseas, allies and
friends remains a controversial idea in some corners of American thought.  

While the George W. Bush administration took significant steps to develop
sea- and land-based missile defense systems to thwart the growing threat,
development of the missile shield is far from complete. Considering just
Iran's nuclear efforts, North Korea's assistance to Syria, and robust
Russian and Chinese arsenals, it's imperative that the White House and
Congress support missile defense programs to close a gaping hole in our
national security.  

Tehran Trouble

Among present proliferation problems, Iran may be the worst, due to its
enmity toward the United States, sponsorship of terrorism, involvement in
Iraq and Afghanistan and regional power ambitions.

Tehran insists its burgeoning nuclear program is for peaceful power
generation, designed to augment Iran's significant oil and natural gas
reserves. (Iran has the world's third-largest oil and second-largest natural
gas reserves.)

But an avalanche of evidence tells a different story. It says Iran is
involved in a nuclear weapons program that may become operational this year,
according to a growing chorus of experts, including the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' supposed nuclear watchdog.

The biggest concern is Iran's enrichment of uranium, ostensibly for the
production of fuel for its nuclear reactor at Bushehr, currently being built
by the Russians-and likely to be completed in 2009.

While Tehran states it has the right to produce reactor fuel under the
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the same uranium could be enriched
further to produce fissile material for use in a nuclear weapon. (The NPT
allows signatories to pursue nuclear programs for scientific or
power-generation purposes, but not military ends. All atomic activities must
be declared to the IAEA.)

Iran isn't only continuing to operate a uranium enrichment facility,
contravening U.N. resolutions, it's also believed to be involved in the
redesign of one of its missiles to accommodate a nuclear warhead. According
to the IAEA, the work on a new warhead for the medium-range Shahab-class
missile, which can reach all of the Middle East and parts of southeastern
Europe, is underway.

If this isn't unnerving enough, it gets worse. Iran might also be working on
another important aspect of a military nuclear program: a long-range
delivery system for a nuclear weapon or other WMD.

Like its "civilian" nuclear efforts that remained undeclared to the IAEA for
almost two decades, long-range ballistic missiles are likely being developed
under cover of Iran's space program. Indeed, Tehran's putative space work
could also lead to the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile
(ICBM) capable of reaching all of Europe-and the United States-with a WMD

Based out of a new space center inaugurated last February by Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran claims it's involved in the development
of a "space launch vehicle," or SLV, for launching satellites.
Theoretically, if someone can launch a ballistic missile that can place a
satellite into orbit, he has the scientific wherewithal to reach a target
anywhere on Earth with a warhead.

Sure, Iran could want to put satellites in space for communications,
military, scientific or research purposes, since it currently relies on
others for this. (Russia put Iran's only satellite into space in 2005.) But
remember: Moscow's launch of its first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 meant
that not only had the Soviets bested us scientifically but also that an ICBM
capacity surely wasn't far behind. That prediction was correct. 

Iran's space efforts follow a similarly unnerving pattern. In the late
1990s, North Korea also used a "civilian" space program to clandestinely
manufacture and test a Taepo Dong ballistic missile with intercontinental
potential. Some experts believe Iran's Shahab, which is based on the North
Korean medium-range No Dong missile, could easily morph into an SLV/ICBM

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Iran could simply be working on a
space program. But, considering Tehran's record of nuclear denial and
deception, it is hard to believe Iran's space program is not just more of
the same.

Korean Concern

From a threat perspective, unfortunately, there isn't much good news out of
North Korea, either, regarding its nuclear or ballistic missile programs.
While the situation is not as volatile as Iran, North Korea remains a reason
for insomnia.

North Korea is already a confirmed nuclear weapons state, lighting off its
first nuclear test in 2006-in another of its irascible "I won't be ignored"

Containing-much less rolling back-North Korea's nuclear program, beginning
in the early years of the Clinton presidency, has been a tough, frustrating
slog. At times, it looked as if the nuclear standoff could lead to another
Korean conflict. 

The multilateral effort to address North Korea's nuclear program has labored
for several years under a six-party process, which includes the United
States, China, Russia, Japan, North and South Korea. 

Even today, despite North Korea's rhetoric and some actions to the contrary,
there remains serious concern about Pyongyang's ultimate willingness to
denuclearize, since its nuclear arsenal is its best international bargaining
chip. Though some progress has been made in "capturing" the nuclear reactor
at Yongbyon, the next steps in addressing North Korea's existing nuclear
weapons capability remain unclear.  

Making the nuclear weapons issue more than a regional matter is North
Korea's ballistic missile prowess, Pyongyang continues to develop a
long-range capability to reach out and touch the United States. In 2006,
North Korea test fired another Taepo Dong missile, which fortunately
malfunctioned like the 1998 launch, this time landing a few hundred miles
west in the Sea of Japan. Experts believe the current Taepo Dong series
missile is potentially capable of reaching Hawaii and the West Coast of the
United States. A missile with a longer-range capability is expected.

North Korea also poses a threat to U.S. forces stationed in East Asia with
its single-stage No Dong missile. The No Dong can reach American bases and
forces in Japan, which might be called upon in a Korean peninsula

On the peninsula, 25,000 American troops also face a North Korean ballistic
missile threat, consisting of several hundred short-range "Scud" missiles
capable of reaching targets in the South within minutes of launch. While
questions exist about its ability to successfully develop a nuclear warhead
capable of withstanding medium- and long-range missile flight, North Korea's
Scuds can launch chemical and biological weapons.

Adding to the angst about North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile
capabilities are Pyongyang's off-Korean peninsula proliferation: North Korea
appears to have secretly assisted Syria with a nuclear program of its own.
In a September 2007 raid, Israeli fighters leveled a Syrian nuclear
facility, which, as details dribbled into the media have shown, was being
built by the North Koreans.

The concern is that a destitute North Korea may be willing to work with any
number of state actors-or non-state actors such as terrorist groups-on
nuclear and ballistic missile matters if the price is right.     

China Challenge

While not an avowed adversary of the United States, China is involved in an
intense competition with America for power and influence in the Asia-Pacific
region, and indeed, across the globe.

China's great power ambitions are buttressed by a robust military
modernization effort, which has been growing at a double-digit rate for more
than a decade now, giving Beijing the world's third-largest defense budget.

Moreover, according to some security analysts, China has the world's most
active ballistic missile production program-a likely reflection of the
unresolved situation surrounding the long-standing political standoff with
China's cross-Strait rival, Taiwan. To deter Taipei's movement toward
independence or other acts Beijing considers "hostile," China has deployed
more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles along the coast opposite
Taiwan, according to the Pentagon.

Apropos of what it considers outside interference in internal affairs, China
maintains medium- and intermediate-range missile forces for deterring,
delaying or denying the intervention of foreign military forces in a Taiwan
contingency, including the United States.

China has modernized its land-based strategic nuclear deterrent, too, adding
advanced, mobile ICBMs to its arsenal; it's planning to put a nuclear
deterrent to sea in nuclear submarines, as well. 

Of equal concern to the growing capacity of China's ballistic missile force
is the continuing potential for proliferation of WMD and ballistic missile
technology or materials, especially to Iran and North Korea.

Russian Rise

Russia isn't an enemy of the United States yet, but it, too, desires to play
a leading role on the world stage, balancing other centers of power such as
the European Union and NATO with its political, economic and military might.

Russia has readjusted its foreign policy orientation from one that was
Western-looking to one that is increasingly anti-West. The Kremlin is
clearly focused on reasserting Russia as a great power-again.

To achieve these ends, Russia maintains its position as the world's
second-mightiest nuclear weapons state, with more than 600 strategic
offensive nuclear weapons. Its ballistic missile force is part of that

Russia now has one of the world's most active ballistic missile testing
programs. With a 30 percent bump up in its defense budget, Moscow may double
ICBM test launches this year, according to Russian military claims.

Adding to security concerns, Russia is threatening to pull out of the
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which banned that specific missile
class in an 1987 arms control pact with the United States. It has also
offered to build nuclear reactors for Latin American troublemaker,

Elsewhere, no fewer than 10 North African and Middle Eastern states have
declared new nuclear programs to the IAEA since 2006 in a likely "hedging"
movement against Iran's atomic aspirations.

What Do We Do?

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration decided that leaving America
deliberately vulnerable to ballistic missiles and their potentially
devastating payloads-as was the case during the Cold War-was foolish.

And rightfully so. 

Vulnerability can lead to perceptions of weakness, inviting threats,
intimidation, blackmail or coercion-or even outright aggression by potential

While missile defense has its critics, few can argue against the idea that
every state has an undeniable right to self-defense. Accordingly, it only
makes sense that all reasonable, necessary steps are taken to protect one's
national security.

It especially makes sense if the technological capability to do so is
emerging, as evidenced by nearly 40 successful U.S. missile defense tests.
Although once incomprehensible, hitting a bullet with a bullet in the
atmosphere-or even space-is now possible. 

Moreover, missile defense is a defensive-not offensive-weapon system. The
interceptor doesn't even contain an explosive charge: Traveling at 15,000
miles per hour, it destroys the incoming missile simply by colliding with

Indeed, missile defense threatens no one. It only undermines the capability
of one country to threaten or attack another country with its ballistic
missiles or WMD. The idea that the deployment of missile defense will
provoke an attack or create instability is a canard meant to encourage
passivity in the face of an existing, indeed, growing, missile and WMD

Fortunately, President Bush didn't buy into these specious arguments,
either. He kept his campaign promise, deploying a system in Alaska and
California to thwart North Korea and proposing a system in Europe to address

In the 21st century, choosing between Cold War-era mutually assured
destruction, known as "MAD," or massive retaliation shouldn't be the only
options for policymakers in dealing with current or future missile or WMD

In the end, missile defense will improve America's security against the
growing challenge of ballistic missiles and their unconventional payloads,
but only if the work of developing and deploying a system continues.