North Korea has detonated two nuclear devices and conducted at least 22 missile tests this year.
In 2015 and again this year, Iran tested missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons—in clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions. There are now 31 countries that deploy ballistic missiles, up from just nine three decades ago.
Yet annual spending on missile defense has fallen under President Barack Obama from $9 billion when he entered office to just $8.3 billion as he prepares to leave. In fact, during his presidency, as missile threats proliferated, missile defense spending dipped as low $7.6 billion (that was in 2014). As a result, the next president will have to play catchup for the years Obama wasted.
While Obama slashed missile defense spending, some of the world’s most reckless regimes modernized their missile programs. Iran and North Korea top the list. To be sure, other regimes have larger, more lethal arsenals, but those other regimes are relatively rational and stable, which means the old rules of deterrence can keep them at bay. That may not be the case with Iran and North Korea.
In 2012, North Korea conducted two long-range missile tests under the guise of satellite launches. In 2013, Kim Jong Un detonated a nuclear bomb. In 2015, we learned that North Korea had produced 20 nuclear warheads. Twenty-sixteen marks the first time North Korea has conducted more than one nuclear test in a calendar year. According to weapons experts, North Korea’s September nuclear-weapons test suggests “progress towards developing a miniaturized nuclear warhead.” All told, since 2006, Pyongyang has conducted five nuclear tests; satellite launches (suggesting a threshold ICBM capability); multiple SCUD, short-range and medium-range missile tests; and test-firings of submarine-launched missiles. And now, weapons experts in the U.S. believe there’s a strong possibility that North Korea’s two missile tests in October were tests of ICBMs—not medium-range missiles, as originally thought.
Even if North Korea wasn’t testing ICBMs, Western weapons experts conclude that North Korea’s ICBMs will “reach operational status early in the next decade—perhaps within five years,” as the Washington Post reports.
“What’s more concerning is not an individual test or two individual tests, it’s that they’re approaching their missile development in a very pragmatic way,” satellite-imagery analyst Joseph Bermudez tells the Post. “They are testing, and they are testing often,” he explains. “This is the way you really learn how to develop a ballistic missile, and that’s what worries me.”
Iran appears to be focusing on precision-guided missiles with a range of 1,250 miles—enough to strike U.S. allies and bases in Europe, Israel and across Southwest Asia. In addition, Iran is modifying its Sajjil missile, which will extend its missile reach to 2,200 miles, bringing most of Europe within range.
Following Pyongyang’s road map to the nuclear club, Iran was developing its nuclear capabilities surreptitiously until 2002, when dissident groups outed Iran’s illegal nuclear-weapons program by exposing sites in Natanz and Arak. In 2009, a secret nuclear facility was discovered in the mountains near Qom. In 2010, the IAEA revealed evidence of attempts by the Iranian military to develop a nuclear warhead. In 2011, the IAEA concluded that Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.” When it was suspected in 2013 that Iran conducted tests for nuclear-bomb triggers in Parchin, the issue was not just papered over, but quite literally paved over. In 2014, U.S. agencies accused Iran of illegally acquiring components to aid in the production of weapons-grade plutonium.
Despite this record, Obama brokered a deal with Tehran that allowed the mullahs to gain access to international markets in exchange for little more than a vague promise that they would delay going nuclear for a few years. As Sen. Bob Menendez puts it, “We have gone from preventing Iran having a nuclear ability to managing it.”
Tehran has conducted at least four missile tests—all prohibited by UN resolutions—since signing the nuclear deal. This is a regime that normalizes terrorism into a basic government function, threatens to wipe neighboring countries off the face of the earth and invokes apocalyptic scenarios to justify its policies. All of this explains why Iran’s neighbors are erecting missile defenses at breakneck speed.
Israel has developed a sophisticated, layered defense against missiles, including the Iron Dome system, David’s Sling system and Arrow anti-missile system. Israel also hosts an X-Band radar that allows the U.S. to track missile threats and relay telemetry to various elements of America’s missile defense system. The Iron Dome system intercepted 735 inbound targets and registered a kill rate of nearly 90 percent during the most recent war in Gaza, Aviation Week reports.
Likewise, Turkey and Qatar host X-Band radar systems. The UAE was the first foreign government to purchase the U.S. terminal high altitude air defense system (THAAD). Oman was next (in 2013). And Qatar and Saudi Arabia announced plans in 2015 to purchase THAAD systems.
Saudi Arabia, which already deploys a number of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-missile batteries, is considering purchasing Aegis warships equipped with missile defenses. Likewise, Kuwait deploys a number of PAC-3 batteries. The Kuwaitis, like the Israelis, know the importance of missile defense from firsthand experience: A PAC-3 intercepted inbound Iraqi missiles in the early stages of the Iraq War, shielding the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait from a decapitation strike.
Not surprisingly, North Korea’s neighbors are strengthening their missile defenses as well.
Lawmakers in Guam asked for a rotational THAAD deployment to be made permanent, and the Pentagon agreed this year. Pentagon officials also convinced Seoul in July to allow deployment of a THAAD anti-missile system. This adds yet another layer of protection to South Korea, which already fields Patriot batteries, Aegis warships and long-range missile-tracking radars.
Japan deploys six Aegis ships (eight by 2020), hosts two X-Band radars and co-developed with the U.S. a new interceptor missile for Aegis ships. In June, South Korea joined the U.S. and Japan for the trio’s first-ever joint missile defense exercises off the coast of Hawaii.
Wary of Iran, NATO officially endorsed Washington’s efforts to construct what might be called an international missile defense system (IMD) in 2008, calling for a “NATO-wide missile defense architecture” that will extend “coverage to all Allied territory and populations.” Toward that end, the U.S., Poland and the Czech Republic—NATO allies all—agreed during the Bush administration to deployment of a bed of ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland and supporting radar elements in Czech territory.
But in a naïve bid to placate Moscow, the Obama administration unilaterally reversed those plans soon after entering office, leaving Poland and the Czech Republic out on a limb. Instead of robust missile defenses, Obama proposed missile defense warships in the Mediterranean and a scaled-back, land-based variant of the Aegis system dubbed “Aegis Ashore.” The Czech Republic rejected Obama’s plans as “a consolation prize.” A Polish official called Obama’s retreat “catastrophic.”
The Obama administration’s initial budget cut overall missile defense spending by 16 percent. The administration’s 2013 budget proposal hacked another $810 million from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The president shelved the airborne laser, cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent, reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile defense capabilities and capped the number of U.S. ground-based interceptors at 30 instead of the planned 44.
Obama’s cuts had real consequences. The Navy deploys 33 ships equipped with Aegis missile defenses but needs 77 to meet combatant commanders’ requests. When Pyongyang started rattling nuclear sabers in 2013, the administration scrambled to jumpstart plans to deploy those extra 14 interceptors in Alaska and California—interceptors that would have been operational if Obama had simply followed the bipartisan plans put in place before his presidency.
By way of comparison, missile defense spending climbed from $2.8 billion to $4.8 billion during the Clinton administration (a healthy 71-percent increase), and it jumped from $4.8 billion to as high as $9.4 billion during the Bush administration (a 95-percent spike).
Unlike his predecessors, Obama viewed missile defense not as a tool in the arsenal, but as a bargaining chip. Worse, Obama’s gamble with America’s nascent missile defenses gained nothing from Moscow, as evidenced by Putin’s actions on the arms-control front, in Ukraine and in Syria.
The good news is that Obama’s successors appear to be strong advocates of missile defense. Given North Korea’s missile moves and China’s unwillingness to rein in Pyongyang, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed, “We’re going to ring China with missile defense.” She argues that the U.S. “must strengthen defense cooperation with our allies in the region; South Korea and Japan are critical to our missile defense system, which will protect us against a North Korean missile.”
Noting that “our ballistic missile defense capability has been degraded,” real-estate mogul Donald Trump promises “to develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system” and “rebuild the key tools of missile defense.”
Moreover, in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act Congress ordered site evaluations for a bed of ground-based interceptors on the East Coast. The Pentagon has identified possible third-site locations in New York, Maine, Michigan and Ohio.
Without question, defending against rogue missile attack costs money. Critics always latch on to the system’s costs (and misses) as reason to downgrade or kill missile defense. Let’s consider these criticisms.
On the issue of costs, protecting the U.S. from accidental launches and missile-armed madmen is not the cause of our fiscal woes. The U.S. has invested a total of $181.5 billion on missile defense since FY85. In comparison to the Pentagon’s budget (about $579 billion in 2016), the size of big-ticket social programs (Medicare’s 2015 tab was $632 billion) or the overall federal budget (around $3.8 trillion in 2016), the amount invested in missile defense is a rounding error. Spread over 32 years, missile defense has cost $5.6 billion annually.
As to effectiveness, nothing made by made works 100 percent of the time. But it’s worth noting that in testing, this system of systems has scored successes on 74 of 91 hit-to-kill intercepts since 2001—an 81-percent success rate. The Aegis sea-based system has achieved 33 successful intercepts in 40 attempts. The ground-based interceptor (which targets inbound threats near their highest point) has connected on nine of 17 intercept attempts. The THAAD system (which targets threats near the end of their flight trajectories) has scored a perfect 13 out of 13.
The question critics of missile defense must answer is this: If—or when—an American or allied city is in the crosshairs of an Iranian or North Korean missile, would they prefer an 80-percent chance or even 50-50 chance of intercepting the killer rocket, or a 0-percent chance—something guaranteed by not fully funding, not testing and not deploying a missile shield?