Just before the Republican presidential candidates went on stage Tuesday night for the fourth debate, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will deploy "strike systems capable of penetrating any missile defenses." He was specifically talking about the U.S. defensive systems planned for Europe that will offer protection against some kinds of Iranian missile threats, and are configured in a way so as to not put a dent in the Russian deterrent. This is not the first time Russia has threatened to target U.S. and NATO defenses, and we can be sure it won’t be the last.
Despite President Obama’s chiding in the run-up to the last presidential election that the “Cold War is over,” his administration’s policies on missile defense have not moved beyond that of the Cold War era. While it is true the Obama administration has supported some elements of ballistic missile defense, it has cancelled deployments of key systems in an effort to appease Russia, and it has totally eliminated some of the most promising programs meant to dramatically advance the system.
During last night’s debate Carly Fiorina outlined ways she would deter Putin and one of such ways would “rebuild” the long-range interceptors in Poland “right under his nose.” Her instincts are right—to expand missile defense, to ignore Russia’s objections to purely defensive systems, and to defend U.S. allies and the homeland from Iranian missiles. But there are better and more politically feasible ways to accomplish her objectives than to deploy that particular system to Poland (if the Poles, who felt betrayed by the United States when President Obama cancelled the plan to deploy it, would even agree to host the system). For instance, the U.S. could, and should, immediately work to deploy that same system, called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, on the East Coast of the United States to beef up protection against an Iranian missile threat.
But more fundamentally, the United States needs an updated missile defense strategy altogether.
Last week, Senator Rubio delivered a speech laying out a modern agenda for adapting the U.S. military to meet modern challenges. One of those ways, according to Rubio, is to “fully fund missile defense programs to ensure we take maximum advantage of modern technologies and stay ahead of this growing threat.”
During the Cold War President Reagan received criticism for his ambitious plan to set the United States on a path to building missile defenses. Two of the criticisms are now simply no longer applicable.
The first was that the technology required for missile defense was too difficult, if not impossible. Now, no reasonable person argues this point.
President Bush withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), a true relic of the Cold War. He did so in 2002 after the 911 attacks. While party to the treaty the United States had zero homeland protection against a missile attack. That just didn’t make sense in an era where there were multiple actors who posed a threat to the United States and had the missile capability to make good on their threats.
The most senior military commanders charged with overseeing the protection of the United States homeland have reiterated their confidence in the ability of GMD to hit an intercontinental missile launched from North Korea or Iran. We have seen what an SM-3 missile can do from an Aegis ship. Not only has it performed very well in tests, it was configured to intercept the non-operational satellite careening toward Earth in what was dubbed “Operation Burnt Frost.” Likewise, the systems meant to intercept the shorter-range missiles, THAAD and Patriot, are deployed and support U.S. forces.
American industry, scientists, and servicemen have done exactly what critics said would never happen—proven we can hit a bullet with a bullet.
The other criticism was that deploying a massive defensive system would upset this precarious balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. Conventional deterrence theorists contended that if the two powers remained vulnerable to one another’s massive nuclear attack, it would have a restraining effect on both. If the U.S. built a more robust system, it might provoke Russia to act aggressively or to build more offensive systems.