In the first term of his presidency, Ronald Reagan challenged America to create a missile defense system capable destroying nuclear weapons as they approached the United States. Until then, the response to a single or trickle of nuclear weapons headed to the U.S. was regarded “as an attack by the Soviet Union upon the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” in the words of President John F. Kennedy.
Reagan wished to alter this calculation with missile defense to allow us, among other things, to neutralize any accidental launches by the Soviet Union before the globe was engulfed in a nuclear fire that no one had intended.
Reagan’s missile defense challenge to America was also a shot across the bow to the Soviets, who felt they could no longer rely on their nuclear arsenal. The Soviets were terrified of Reagan and were forced to ramp up their conventional military spending while at the same time fighting a war in Afghanistan in the midst the historically low oil prices on which high prices their economy relied.
However, due to U.S. domestic political opposition and the end of the Cold War, the missile defense system has suffered chronic underfunding and lack of attention in the ensuing 35 years, all while the threat of adversarial ballistic missiles has grown by any measure. Despite the growing threat of missile attack from North Korea and other threats, the missile defenses of the United States, even today, remain effective but limited.
An extensive report by the Center for Strategic International Studies details the need to prioritize missile defense in an effort to protect our homeland, which isn’t surprising as the threat grows from Russia, Iran, North Korea and non-state actors such as ISIS.
In fact, President Donald Trump highlighted the threat from North Korea specifically in his speech on Tuesday to the United Nations, when he expressed his concern that the prison nation would have to be totally destroyed should it launch against the U.S. or our allies.
A comprehensive approach is required. And as I have been arguing for years, we can’t afford to let investment in these vital technologies lag. The missile capabilities of hostile regimes are growing more advanced, and we must have sustained support if we wish to keep ahead of the curve.
The Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has been the center of our missile defense effort, but its progress assumes an existence of funding and support that has not seen continued enthusiasm for a number of years.
While the Naval accidents involving the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald are likely to delay short-term progress with sea-based missile defense, there is no reason the U.S. should suffer a corresponding delay in our proven ground-based missile defense capabilities. The real cost isn’t just about dollars, but rather how much we are willing to spend to be able to shoot down missiles before they can destroy a nation or part of a nation? As of now, our Ground Based Missile Defense does protect the homeland, including Alaska and Hawaii. A good start, to be sure, but Congress should make it a priority to upgrade the system to protect Americans from evolving threats.
A successful WMD ballistic missile attack on U.S. territory, forward-deployed forces, or allies would carry enormous costs in lives and treasure. We must demonstrate that as a nation, we will protect itself from any ballistic missile threat, no matter whether accidental or intentional, and regardless of the location, launch origin or intent.
At an absolute minimum, Congress should fund missile defense programs that have gone underfunded for years. If the federal government sees fit to spend our money to build new soccer fields for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, research video games such as “World of Warcraft” and help Pakistani farmers produce more mangos, then I am confident it can find the funds to protect American children from a WMD missile attack.
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Michael James Barton is the founder of a consulting firm, Hyatt Solutions. He worked on trade issues on Capitol Hill and served at the Department of Defense and the Homeland Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. He can be reached at Scheduling@HyattSolutions.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @MichaelJames357.