Missile defense can’t wait

Russia shows no sign that it is willing to de-escalate tensions with the West. Troops remain in Ukraine and continue to violate the cease-fire there, even as the Kremlin launches multiple military probes into the Baltic littoral states.  Virtually every day, the United States and its allies are forced to scramble military assets in response to Russian incursions. This state of affairs requires a broader U.S. strategy. America’s response cannot be confined to Europe. It must also incorporate investments in deterrent technology that keep our citizens safe, specifically missile defense.

Domestic constraints abound, to be sure. The pressure on the Pentagon’s finances has never been greater. Budgetary concerns are now driving a debate about whether to continue production of the exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), an essential component of modern missile defense. Some argue that the EKV program should be shelved and a new interceptor built from scratch.

That proposal is both fiscally imprudent and strategically dangerous. Because missile threats from Russia, as well as China and rogue state actors such as Iran and North Korea, already exist, the United States simply cannot afford to remain undefended for the years that would be needed to erect a new system.

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis was fond of noting that, when formulating military strategy, “the enemy gets a vote.” When it comes to missile defense, this is sage advice; numerous nations already pose a threat to the United States, and they certainly won’t wait for American officials to navigate our long and costly procurement cycle.

Russia is just one such nation. There are many others. North Korea continues to process nuclear material for a long-range weapon. Iran’s relations with the U.S. remain unstable, and the Islamic Republic is closer than ever to nuclear capability.

The chaos wrought by the Syrian civil war could open a power vacuum in the Middle East, making it even easier for terrorist groups to get their hands on dangerous missiles. Meanwhile, China continues building its defense capabilities.

Investing in improving existing systems -- the EKV prominent among them -- is the most effective way to meet these threats.

The science behind the current approach is sound. The EKV catches a ride with a rocket into space, then has the job of targeting and destroying an incoming enemy missile. This technology was originally introduced by the Bush administration in response to the threat posed by North Korea.

At the time, the EKV was little more than a complex prototype. However, it has evolved considerably since, and a series of successful tests have demonstrated that ongoing design upgrades are making the EKV more accurate.

This year, the Missile Defense Agency will decide whether to spend an additional $300 to $400 million on near-term improvements to the EKV or to pledge more than $1 billion for a competition to build a new one. Some critics are already claiming that continuing investment in the EKV would be tantamount to throwing good money after bad.

But that thinking doesn’t fit the evidence. The technology behind the EKV has steadily improved in recent years. And the military can bring insights from other successful missile programs -- such as the highly effective SM-3 interceptor -- to further expedite EKV refinements.

What’s more, spending $1 billion on a brand-new interceptor is fiscally irresponsible. The Pentagon should be looking for ways to trim budgets, not inflate them.

Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are all building up their military capabilities. Some of their leaders are dead-set on attacking the United States. We must answer this threat by keeping our missile defenses progressing, thereby sending a clear signal that America is prepared to protect itself and its allies. Defense officials must ignore the calls to start from scratch.

Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

 

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Published: Jan. 1, 2015 - Volume 13 - Issue 38