Chuck Hagel deserves praise — four words I did not expect to be writing — for announcing an expansion of the U.S. missile-defense system. Fourteen additional ground-based long-range missile interceptors are to be installed in Alaska by 2017 at a cost of $1 billion. Their purpose: to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles before those ICBMs can reach their intended victims. Combined with interceptors in California, this will bring the total number of West Coast interceptors to 44.
More praise will be due if this turns out to represent a broader change of heart on missile defense within the Obama administration. Consider: In 2001, Barack Obama, then a state senator, said flatly: “I don’t agree with a missile-defense system.” Seven years later, during his first presidential campaign, then-senator Obama pledged to slash $10 billion from the Pentagon’s missile-defense budget — about $1 billion more than the U.S. was actually spending on missile defense at the time. In 2009 then-senator Chuck Hagel, appearing on Al Jazeera, asked: “How can we preach to other countries that you can’t have nuclear weapons but we can and our allies can?” (One possible answer — that some countries threaten their neighbors, proliferate nuclear technology, sponsor terrorism, and oppress their citizens, while others do not — eluded him at that moment.)
Also in 2009, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. was prepared to provide a global missile “defense umbrella.” That would have been historic — but it never got off the ground (if you will excuse the expression). In fact, missile-defense spending was actually cut by $1 billion that year, and there have been cuts every year since. In a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, Representative Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, charged that the “damage done to missile defense by this administration will take billions of dollars to undo, and finding that money is so much tougher now.”
For a very long time, Senator Jon Kyl, just retired, argued strenuously for the development of a comprehensive system to protect America from missile attacks, both conventional and EMP (electromagnetic pulse). In a 2005 Washington Post op-ed, Kyl explained:
A single Scud missile, carrying a single nuclear weapon, detonated at the appropriate altitude, would interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, producing an electromagnetic pulse radiating down to the surface at the speed of light. . . . The effect would be to knock out already stressed power grids and other electrical systems across much or even all of the continental United States, for months if not years. . . . Iran has surprised intelligence analysts by describing the mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as “successful” tests. North Korea exports missile technology around the world; Scuds can easily be purchased on the open market for about $100,000 apiece.
Aside from missile-defense systems — or better yet, in addition to them — it would be neither difficult nor expensive to harden the electric grid and to have such vital replacement equipment as transformers ready for installation.
Representative Trent Franks (R., Ariz.) and other members of the House Missile Defense Caucus also have attempted to make the pro-missile-defense argument. The Heritage Foundation produced a very good documentary film on the missile threat and the need to counter it. Quite a few scholars and opinion writers have beaten this drum as well. All these efforts have produced meager results — at most, the budget cuts were not as deep as they might have been.
So why the change now, at a time of soaring debt and sequestration? For one, 28-year-old Kim Jong Un has turned out to be a chip off the old Communist bloc — as bellicose a North Korean dictator as his father and grandfather before him. In recent days, Kim has threatened to launch nuclear attacks against both South Korea and the U.S. And Kim seems to be putting his missiles where his mouth is. His new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, which can be easily hidden and launched with little or no warning, represents a clear and present danger to South Korea, Japan, Alaska, and Hawaii. The Pentagon expects California, Oregon, and Washington to be within reach before very long, too.
True, most experts do not believe the North Koreans currently have a nuclear warhead small enough to be carried by one of their long-range missiles. But such mini-warhead/maxi-missile combinations should be expected. When? Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said: “We do not know Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine or employment concepts.” In other words, what Kim is thinking, doing, and planning is anybody’s guess. Also worth worrying about: As Kyl indicated, it is not impossible to fire short-range missiles from sea-based platforms.
Whatever technology Kim’s rocket scientists develop he will not hesitate to sell to Iran’s rulers and others hostile to America. And they could then share it with terrorists groups. State sponsorship of any attacks that followed could be plausibly denied.
For these and other reasons, the imminent introduction of new interceptors in Alaska points the U.S. in the right direction — but it should be only the beginning. The East Coast of the United States cannot be adequately protected by missile-defense interceptors in Alaska and California. Installing a third anti-missile site on the East Coast would be prudent if this slice of America — which, if memory serves, has some fairly major population centers — is to be protected. Secretary Hagel said the Pentagon is now studying the possibility — indeed, Congress is requiring that. Interceptors in Europe would be useful, too. The Russians, however, continue to insist that the U.S. leave itself vulnerable.
It was 30 years ago this month that President Reagan first proposed that America build a global missile-defense shield. He envisioned a nuclear strategy based not on the cold comfort of mutually assured destruction, but on developing the capability to “intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies.” In 1983, American science was not yet up to the task. Now we have the technological means – the question is: Do we have the will? Do Obama and his top advisers now agree with missile defense?
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.