U.S. Needs Better Missile Defense for a Scarier Nuclear Age

(The Bloomberg View) -- In the last few weeks, the world has become a measurably more dangerous place. The apparent collapse of the North Korea talks, U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear pact, Russia’s threat to shoot down U.S. planes over Syria, and China’s placement of anti-ship and anti-air missiles on its manufactured islands in the South China Sea have all pushed the needle one tick closer to the unthinkable: nuclear war.

So now, more than ever, is the time to think about it — and plan for it.

America’s primary domestic defense system against a nuclear-missile attack is the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, or GMD, with bases in Alaska and California. More than $40 billion has been spent on this successor to Ronald Reagan’s so-called Star Wars project. Yet it has only 44 “kill vehicles” intended to defend against a small-scale intercontinental attack of the sort North Korea might attempt, and its success rate in testing is only about 50 percent.

A second system based in Eastern Europe since 2016 uses an on-shore version of the Navy’s excellent Aegis combat system and is intended to protect Europe from an Iranian nuclear attack. But it isn’t geared toward defeating the longer-range ballistic missiles Iran is thought to be developing in violation of United Nations resolutions. Testing of the system has been limited.

If the uncertainty over whether these systems could knock even a single attack by a rogue state out of the sky isn’t unsettling enough, the U.S. would be all but defenseless from a mass attack by nuclear superpowers China and Russia. The only U.S. defense is its overwhelming offense of 6,800 nuclear warheads in Midwestern bunkers and aboard nuclear submarines and long-range bombers.

Yet there are reasons for optimism. The Pentagon’s “theater defense” systems, designed to take out short- and medium-range conventionally armed missiles (and perhaps tactical nuclear weapons) on the battlefield, have performed far better. The ground-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, which is now deployed in South Korea and Guam, has been virtually flawless in testing, according to the Pentagon. The older Patriot system and the ship-based version of Aegis have also been highly reliable.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that one solid step toward improving matters would be to integrate all these systems into a holistic national missile shield.

Movement in that direction, one hopes, will be spurred by the imminent release of the newest congressionally mandated Defense Department comprehensive overview of the issue. Even before the public sees it, there is already a promising signal: While previous versions were titled the “Ballistic Missile Defense Review,” that first word has been dropped from the forthcoming document, showing that the Pentagon is looking at the bigger picture.

Integrating the various defense shields is all the more vital because China and Russia are making great advances in developing hybrid technologies such as hypersonic missiles — which unlike ballistic missiles can change course rapidly — as well as a new generation of long-range (and perhaps nuclear-powered) cruise missiles, better unmanned systems and more.

While it’s certain that the new review won’t ignore the China-Russia threat — as the Obama administration’s 2010 version largely did, another instance of its general failure to take the Russian threat seriously — it would be a terrible oversight if it doesn’t fully consider the implication of a new era of great-power conflict.

Thus one pillar of any new strategy should be a rebalancing toward homeland defense, which in budget terms has been badly undernourished compared to tactical systems over the last decade.

An obvious first step would be to improve the two existing land-based systems. On the domestic shield, the quickest and easiest improvement would be to expand the missile fields at Fort Greeley, Alaska, which could accommodate 60 interceptors or more. The Pentagon should also look at the feasibility of a new shield to defend the eastern half of the country, perhaps with a mobile system that could move between sites on the East Coast and Midwest.

On Eastern Europe, the Trump administration could go ahead with two plans shelved by its predecessor in deference to Russian concerns — placing batteries in one more allied country, likely Poland, and re-arming the system with a new generation of Raytheon’s SM-3 interceptors.  A second area requiring urgent attention is space. The heavens are currently an arms-free zone under the terms of a 1967 treaty, but there’s little doubt that America’s adversaries are planning to someday weaponize satellites, and the U.S. should be ready to do the same.

New space-based sensor technologies are needed to track missiles (including low-altitude weapons such as hypersonics) from launch to impact. Ground- and sea-based sensors can’t do that because of the curvature of the earth. Such monitoring would also be better than terrestrial systems at discerning decoys and other missile trickery.

In addition, most U.S. defenses are designed to intercept incoming missiles at their midcourse phase, just before they re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. This is aptly likened to “hitting a bullet with a bullet.” A far surer way to defuse the threat would be to blow it up on take-off. Possibilities for this include cyberattacks and directed-energy weapons (that is, laser beams).

Finally, as more money and effort are put into research and development, the U.S. would be well advised to share its advances with its closest allies, particularly Israel (which could return the favor by sharing its Iron Dome technology) and the Gulf Arab states, which have long struggled to build a joint missile-defense system against Iran.

Many will worry that if the U.S. steps up its defense architecture in these and other ways, it will simply spur China and Russia to put more money into their own missile capabilities. But those two nations are already in a mad dash to upgrade and expand every aspect of their militaries. Stronger U.S. defenses are the best way to deter their increasing aggressions and bring them, someday, to the negotiating table for arms-reduction talks.

That said, China and Russia need to be reassured that these new systems are defensive only, and not engineered for preemptive strikes on their strategic arsenals. Any ambiguity about that would be destabilizing — the last thing anybody should want in the life-and-death chess game of nuclear deterrence.

Last year, President Trump claimed that “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time.” Let’s hope the Missile Defense Review will set him straight: Judged as a whole, the country’s missile defenses come nowhere close to providing that kind of security. Ensuring Americans’ safety amid rising nuclear threats from major powers and rogue states demands new vision and determination of U.S. civilian and military leaders.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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