America’s Commitment to Missile Defense

North Koreans attend a rally in support of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's order to put its missile units on standby in preparation for a possible war against the U.S. and South Korea, Pyongyang, March 29, 2013.
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North Koreans attend a rally in support of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s order to put its missile units on standby in preparation for a possible war against the U.S. and South Korea, Pyongyang, March 29, 2013.

By Rick Nelson – Earlier this summer, Panamanian authorities seized missile radar systems from a North Korean freighter traveling from Cuba – clear evidence that Pyongyang is continuing its aggressive pursuit of a nuclear missile program. Meanwhile, Iran’s extremist government shows no signs of slowing the development of its nuclear program and could have a weapon within a year.

These dual developments highlight the chief threat to American security in the 21st Century. With unparalleled military might, America has little to fear from conventional warfare with sovereign states. However, we remain shockingly vulnerable to attacks from rogue states that have acquired a nuclear weapon capability and the systems to deliver it.


The cost of failing to stop such an attack is unfathomable. It necessitates that protecting our nation from such a catastrophe be our chief security challenge. As such it’s crucial that America continue to invest in robust missile defense capabilities. A technologically advanced shield provides invaluable protection from long-range missiles launched by rogue actors.

When Ronald Reagan first proposed building a missile defense system in 1983, the effort was derided by critics as “Star Wars.” Naysayers insisted that the technology for missile defense only existed in the realm of science fiction. Today, missile defense is a proven, real-world technology.

America’s political leaders from both parties have recognized the importance of missile defense technology to our national security infrastructure. Earlier this year, the Obama administration pledged $1 billion for new missile interceptors along the West Coast, Alaska and Guam — primarily in response to North Korean saber-rattling.

NATO intelligence suggests that all of Europe could be vulnerable to missile attack from the Middle East by 2018. News reports earlier this month revealed that the Pentagon is moving to build a missile-defense system in Romania to protect our allies in Southern Europe.

Worldwide, our allies depend on this technology. Israel has successfully used missile defenses against real attacks. The technology is a key part of the national defense strategies of Japan, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. And Poland and Turkey are seriously considering adopting their own missile defense programs.

But while missile defense technology, contrary to the expectations of its detractors, has already demonstrated its worth, it is still a work in progress toward full effectiveness. In a July 5 test, a missile-defense interceptor missed its target over the Pacific Ocean. It was the Pentagon’s third test failure in a row for long-range interceptors.

Yet these long-range interceptors have hit their targets in eight of 16 tests — a significant accomplishment. And when it comes to intercepting short-range targets, the Missile Defense Agency has compiled an impressive 14-2 record.

The evidence suggests that our missile-defense capability is already effective and rapidly improving. If America keeps investing in this technology, there’s little doubt we’ll soon have a formidable layer of protection against attacks from rogue regimes.

The Pentagon is currently developing four complementary systems: the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System; its naval counterpart, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense; the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD); and  the Patriot Air Defense Missile System, which is significantly more advanced since it gained fame during the first Iraq war.

Deploying and perfecting these missile systems is going to require an ongoing American commitment. It will require skillful coordination of many different assets on land, sea and air all over the world.

Fortunately, there is a global consensus regarding the necessity of missile defense. The NATO alliance has made territorial missile defense an operational priority. This means America and our allies are now pooling resources and expertise to bring missile defense systems online in a more timely and cost-effective manner. And we can extend protection to smaller nations that may not have the capability to set up a missile defense system on their own.

This kind of cooperation promises to usher in a new era for international security.

Rogue state actors cannot compete militarily with America and our friends and allies. Their only glimmer of power lies in their pursuit of asymmetric capabilities such as weapons of mass destruction. Accordingly, these countries will continue to pursue nuclear weapon and long-range missile capabilities with the intention of deploying them against America and its allies. These elements aren’t rational. They aren’t deterred by mutually assured destruction.

We can most effectively combat this threat by continuing to invest in missile defense technology. Protection for America and its allies will only come through hard work and unwavering commitment in the years ahead.

Rick Nelson, a vice president at Cross Match Technologies, is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he directed the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program from 2009 through 2012.