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Build missile defense before it's too late

IF THERE WAS any doubt remaining about why the United States needs a missile defense system, it was dispelled recently by the actions of North Korea. Having shunned negotiations, North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship leaves little doubt about its access to nuclear weaponry. Seven years ago the North Koreans demonstrated long-range missile capability and are now suspected of having the means to strike Hawaii, Alaska, and the western United States. It recently ended its moratorium on long-range missile testing. Yet in the face of this crisis, the Defense Department's proposed budget slashes $1 billion this year and billions more over the next five years from the only program that can protect Americans from such grave and hostile threats.

And North Korea is not the only threat. Ballistic missile technology is widely available and will only spread over time. Many nations can launch short- and medium-range missiles, and numerous others have access to advanced long-range missile technology.

Unfortunately, the wavering commitment of past presidents and Congresses has left the United States virtually defenseless against ballistic missile attacks today. Until now, our nation was protected by a single ineffectual layer -- rhetoric. President Bush's December 2001 decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and proceed with the deployment of an ambitious multilayered missile defense overcame this seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Much progress has been made, and a limited defense against North Korea is under construction in Alaska and California.

The challenge is whether the United States will live up to the rhetoric and continue providing the resources and resolve needed to defend the nation against a catastrophic threat in the face of pressing financial burdens.

A robust defense deters rogue nations and terrorist groups. By lowering the probability of a successful missile strike, the enemy is denied the certainty of its effectiveness and is virtually guaranteed retaliation for such an attack. Additionally, one should be mindful not only of the cost of the system but the protection it is designed to provide -- the only real protection against a limited nuclear-, biological-, or chemical-armed ballistic missile attack.

Building a robust, multilayered defense is not an easy task. The technologies are sophisticated, the engineering is challenging, and the global integration of sensors, assets, and communications to precisely hit a ''bullet with a bullet" is daunting. Important steps have been taken, but much more is needed.

The eight interceptors recently deployed in Alaska and California provide a limited defense against the North Korean threat. If it were expanded, it would offer protection against missiles launched from the Middle East. Not surprisingly, moving the system from the drawing board to the field is challenging. Deploying advanced systems is not without complication, but the fundamental ability to intercept and destroy an attacking missile has been demonstrated.

Continued work is necessary, but the proliferation of ballistic missile technology calls for an even more comprehensive approach. Facing a period of fiscal austerity and a billion-dollar budget cut, the missile defense program must reexamine its options and place a premium on those approaches capable of producing highly adaptable defenses that can engage threats from multiple locations around the globe and defend against short-, medium-, and long-range missiles.

In the short term, continued emphasis on the most mature options is appropriate, for they confront today's long-range missile threats. The Navy's SM-3 interceptor recently continued its string of impressive performances and offers a viable defense against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The Patriot PAC-3 and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense systems offer promising approaches for dealing with the widespread threat from short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, particularly for US forces abroad.

This reexamination also must exploit the missile's most vulnerable point, the initial stage of flight known as boost phase -- a capability that the United States lacks. Of the efforts focused on boost-phase defense, neither provides global coverage without an extensive network of ground bases. Most distressing, a promising option is not even being studied. Contrary to the gross overestimates of cost and underestimates of capability, space-based interceptors offer a cost-effective and potent defense in the boost and ascent phase. Recent analyses of technical and cost factors suggest the ability to place localized constellations of space-based interceptors over ''trouble spots" is quite possible. It is the most effective way to destroy ballistic missiles.

We cannot firmly predict the threats we will face tomorrow. A missile defense is a hedge against that state of uncertainty. North Korea's recent actions serve as a reminder that the threat of a missile attack is not some flight of fancy but a serious hazard to the United States, which should prompt it to redouble efforts to protect the American people.

Jeff Kueter is president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank based in Washington.

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