When President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in his first term, the effort was greeted with skepticism—both for its technological feasibility and its mission. Critics pejoratively labeled it “Star Wars,” implying that it belonged more in the realm of Hollywood fantasy than in
But the effort to develop missile defense systems did not disappear completely. Research continued into vital enabling technologies, and the inexorable evolution of computer processing chips cleared the way to important advances in tracking and targeting. A new administration in early 2001 moved missile defense higher on the priority list, and engineers began to consider it in terms of usable systems instead of just theoretical applications.
With that shift in emphasis came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the
Once again, the world was a dangerous place—and in a more menacing way than during the Cold War. Instead of facing a single enemy at odds over definable political differences, the Free World found itself threatened by a nihilistic foe with no political goals and seemingly driven only by the desire to generate a body count—including his or her own, if suitable.
The superpower rivalry that characterized the Cold War helped reduce the threat from rogue nations. Most of the world’s lesser powers were either allied with or under the control of one superpower or the other. Absent Cold War alliances, these nations now are free to develop whatever weapons they choose. Some have chosen lethally.
Today, the ballistic missile threat is burgeoning. Attempts at counterproliferation have not hindered the spread of technology. Many small nations have basic ballistic missile capabilities that give them a degree of military power that they otherwise could not afford with their limited resources. These nations are hard at work improving their missile capabilities, particularly in terms of range and accuracy. The problem is not so much the number of nations that have ballistic missiles as it is the ongoing improvements in missile quality.
Soon, Europe will be well within range of ballistic missiles launched from
Missile attacks need not come from an enemy’s homeland. Many nations are adding submarine technology to their military portfolios, and some have active programs to deploy ballistic missile submarines.
The availability of global positioning system (GPS) guidance adds a new dimension to this challenge. A surface vessel such as a freighter could serve as a launch pad for a GPS-guided ballistic missile with only a modest range. Most of the world’s population lives within 200 miles of the ocean—well within the range of many easily-available missiles.
And Western intelligence officials know that terrorists have shown great interest in employing commercial cargo vessels. Some of the piracy hijackings in the Pacific and
Fortunately for the Free World, missile defense technology has matured to the point where active systems are being deployed on land and at sea. More advanced systems are just around the corner. And, research continues into innovative defensive technologies and better detection, tracking, targeting and guidance systems.
These developments come not a moment too soon. The Free World finds itself in a taut competition between offensive and defensive technologies. Rogue nations and terrorists will not let up in their attempts to improve their threats against innocents. Effective missile defense systems could convince these adversaries that development and employment of ballistic missiles might be a counterproductive use of scarce resources.
More information about missile defense is available in the March 2008 issue of SIGNAL Magazine, in the mail to AFCEA members and subscribers March 3, 2008. For information about purchasing this issue, joining AFCEA or subscribing to SIGNAL, contact AFCEA Member Services.