Missile Defense No Longer on the Far Horizon

February 15, 2008

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 U.S. defense posture. The Free World’s adversary in the Cold War, the Soviet Union, knew otherwise from its own longtime experiments, and the communist nation tried to stop SDI through Western propagandizing and arms control negotiations. Ultimately the Soviet Union collapsed economically and politically—due in part to its inability to compete with the United States on SDI, according to former Soviet officials—and new economic and political priorities brought about by the end of the Cold War put U.S. missile defense on a very cold back burner.

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 United States realized it was at war again. The global threat was compounded by the potential nightmare scenario of terrorists receiving assistance from rogue nations—such as North Korea, Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—all of which had active ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction programs.

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 Iran, a nation that continues to resist international monitoring of its nuclear program. South Korea and Japan long have been under threat from North Korean missiles, and now the western United States can be reached by the rogue nuclear power’s longest range missile.

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 Indianoceans have had the earmarks of dress rehearsals by terrorist groups. Terrorists willing to die for their cause would have no qualms about launching a missile from a ship just a few miles offshore.

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.

—The Editor

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.