President Trump Continues To Make Space A Priority

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Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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Well, we did not have to wait long.

On August 7, the head of research and development at the Pentagon, Mike Griffin, told defense reporters the best way to deal with threatening missiles is from missile defenses in space which are “technically feasible and reasonably affordable.”

The Director of the Missile Defense Agency also weighed on August 8, explaining how a space-based missile sensor system “would have a regional detection and tracking capability staring down at Earth that could go after hypersonic [missile] threat detection” but also catch missiles in the early phase of their flight.”

It is reasonable to ask what is the fight all about? What would be wrong about defending our country from ballistic missiles? Is not that what Ronald Reagan proposed in 1983 in his Strategic Defense Initiative? Shouldn’t we be getting this job done?

In Washington, political fights are never simple or straightforward.

First, space-based missile defenses, as President Reagan knew when he proposed them in 1983, would effectively change the strategic balance and give the upper hand to the United States in a crisis, but most importantly, it would severely limit the coercive power of the Soviet Union’s huge multi-warhead ICBM missiles.

Second, why would the arms control community be against this? Ever since Secretary of Defense McNamara in 1967  proposed a limited missile shield to be built against the emerging Chinese missile threat, many analysts have worried such a missile shield would upset the strategic balance by preventing Russia and China from having an assured ability to retaliate against the United States should we strike them first with our own nuclear missiles.

And if we could be completely protected by a missile defense from any retaliatory strike, we would it is feared be vitiating the Chinese and Russian “deterrent” and as such invite a pre-emptive nuclear strike by Russia or China on our own country in a crisis.

In short, we have to fight fair. No shields allowed.

Third, “no-shields thinking” was enshrined in the ABM treaty of 1972, which prohibited the United States and the then Soviet Union from building anything but a small, rudimentary (and useless) defense of no more than 100 interceptors around either Washington, D.C., or a designated missile base.

But given that the 1972 nuclear agreement between the United States and the Soviets, known as the SALT Treatyallowed both sides to build up to over 10,000 nuclear warheads, what was the point of only a limited number of interceptors?

So even the relatively limited system the United States built in Grand Forks, North Dakota to protect a missile field was eventually shut down after only six months of operation.

Fourth, in the next subsequent debate on missile defenses, especially after President Reagan’s 1983 proposed a research project to build a seriously robust missile defense, the entire façade of the academic, political, and media triumvirates opposition to missile defense was threatened.

Here is why: space-based missile defenses can better shoot down missiles shortly after launch, as opposed to during the flight-time called mid-course. In mid-course, the missile could launch numerous warheads as well as “decoys” to fool the interceptors and thus render mid-course missile defenses less useful. Or that is the argument.

Fifth, our current nation-wide defense in Alaska and California is primarily a midcourse defense (which could be augmented under some limited circumstances by our Aegis class Navy based systems). The mid-course system has worked in five of the past six tests, including tests with decoys. It now consists of 44 interceptors scheduled to be built-up to 64 by 2023. And it’s the only defense we have against long-range missiles aimed at us from China, Russia and North Korea.

Sixth, space-based systems would give the United States and its allies an extra and very capable part of our current global and layered missile defenses. This would enable the United States to better destroy “bad guy missiles” launched at us by our enemies in a crisis. It could also really help stop a surprise terror missile attack.

Now, no one believes that any such space system can destroy thousands of missile warheads if launched at us simultaneously, but lower numbers of missile warheads are another matter completely.

Such a defense would not eliminate the capability of the “bad guys” to launch a retaliatory strike back at us, but relatively limited, initial missile threats could be deterred or stopped, as well as even larger attacks where the certainty of an attacker being confident that he can destroy our key targets goes down measurably.

For large, robust attacks, we have first a very robust defense and that is called nuclear deterrence where we threaten to retaliate with our nuclear forces should we be attacked first. But missile defenses, in any scenario, gives us an added capability to deter and stop a strike if deterrence fails.

As such an advanced shield would help prevent and deter a threatened first use of missiles early in a crisis. More importantly, such defenses would help stop in its tracks any “escalate to win” nuclear strategy. This is the strategy Russia adopted in 2000, threatening to use a limited number of nuclear-armed missiles early in a crisis to get the United States to back down and surrender.

Now, there are also new reasons why space-based missile defenses make even more sense today than they did decades ago. Space launch costs to get the missile defense systems into space are considerably cheaper but were never necessarily show stoppers. So that “it costs too much” façade is no longer tenable.

In summary, no longer do we need to accept a defeatist attitude toward missile threats to the United States and our allies. Launch costs are markedly lower and the technology of sensors, computing power and propulsion are far advanced from earlier work on missile defense. And despite assertions to the contrary, much of the missile defense technology developed many decades ago under SDI is now in the field and would be the basis for a future space-based deployments.

At its core, the vision of “mutual assured destruction” — deterrence without missile defenses — is based on a strange idea that it is better for the United States to be held mutually and completely hostage to our enemies’ missiles and nuclear weapons.

Would it not be better to be in a position to both deter and intercept such threats, thus enhancing our freedom to protect our own security and that of our allies, while advancing liberty worldwide?

This defeatist attitude had previously embraced the 1970’s Nixon and Carter policy of “détente and peaceful co-existence” and the 1960’s McNamara era of “mutual assured destruction.” And such an attitude could not understand how President Reagan could describe the Soviet Union as “an evil empire.”

Some 35 years after President Reagan envisioned a missile defense for the United States, and for the first time a provision in the defense bill just passed by Congress and signed into law by the president calls for the development of a prototype space-based interceptor to defend Americans from ballistic missiles.

Quick to sound the alarm, opponents Tom Collina and Zach Brown of the Ploughshare Fund warned on August 3, 2018, about Congress “rushing ahead” with such a system that in their view the Pentagon did not want. Besides they asserted, the proposed system was “too expensive, won’t work, and will set off an arms race.”

How ironic that a group (Ploughshares) that regularly blasts the military for supporting unneeded and costly weapons system, wants to delay a decision about missile defense until the Pentagon weighs in!

The world is to be managed with the other nuclear powers such as China and Russia, and their legitimate interests “protected.”

For Reagan, the struggle between Soviet communism and the free nations of the “West” was profoundly a moral one. In this respect, missile defense was seen by President Reagan as a critically important technology and strategy that rejected the idea of a world divided between the “empires of the East and the West but sought to expand the free alliance of nations, largely democratic, valuing their independence and their freedom.

The signing the defense bill into law on August 12, 2018, is a big additional step in that right direction.

Peter Huessy is the director for strategic deterrent studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.