Capstones: Missiles, Mistakes and Madmen

By Alan W. Dowd, 6.2.15

Three decades ago, there were nine countries that fielded ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32. Excluding the U.S., Russian and Chinese arsenals, the number of ballistic missiles in the world has swelled from 1,200 to 6,000 in recent years. Several of the countries in the growing ballistic-missile club are unstable (Pakistan and Egypt) or unfriendly (Iran and North Korea) or both (Syria). As the missile threat metastasizes, missile defense is gaining support around the world—but not everywhere.

The Bad

Let’s start with the bad news. After all, what’s happening on the missile-threat front is the best case for what’s happening on the missile-defense front.

Because of the nature of their regimes—adjectives like paranoid, fatalistic and terrorist come to mind—North Korea and Iran are the most worrisome of the world’s missile threats. To be sure, other regimes have larger, more lethal arsenals, but those other regimes are rational and stable, which means the old rules of deterrence can keep them at bay. That may not be the case with a nuclear-armed Iran or an unraveling North Korea.

Earlier this year, Beijing estimated that North Korea possesses 20 nuclear warheads—and could have 40 by 2016. Pentagon brass recently assessed North Korea’s nuclear-capable KN-08 ICBM to be operational. The Hwasong-13, a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, is now officially part of North Korea’s arsenal. The Defense Intelligence Agency concludes “with moderate confidence” that North Korea “has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles.”  This is a regime that spasmodically tests nuclear weapons and long-range missilery, and warned in 2013 that it was prepared to launch “a preemptive nuclear attack” against the U.S. and South Korea.

The Pentagon reported in 2012 that Iran may be able to flight-test an ICBM by this year. With the successful launch of the Safir space vehicle in 2009, “Iran demonstrated technologies that are directly applicable to the development of ICBMs,” according to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Iran has constructed launch sites for long-range missiles. But Iran’s missile reach is not limited to land-based assets. In 2004, high-level Pentagon officials confirmed that Iran secretly test-fired a ballistic missile from a cargo ship. Hiding a Scud-type missile and launcher below decks, the ship put to sea and then transformed itself into a floating launch pad, peeling back the deck and firing the missile, before reconfiguring itself into a nondescript cargo ship. This is a regime, it pays to recall, that has normalized terrorism into a basic government function, that foments revolution, that threatens to wipe neighboring countries off the face of the earth, that invokes apocalyptic scenarios to justify its policies.

Add it all up, and the product is a gathering threat to the United States and its closest allies.

The Good

If proliferation gives us reason to worry, two realities offer reason for hope. The first is the impressive record of missile defense in battle and in testing.

In battle, Patriot PAC-3 batteries intercepted inbound Iraqi missiles in the early stages of the Iraq War, shielding the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait from a decapitation strike.

Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system—relying on the same basic principles of longer-range missile defense—intercepted 735 inbound targets and registered a kill rate of nearly 90 percent during the most recent war in and around the Palestinian territory of Gaza, as Aviation Week reports. “Iron Dome almost negated Hamas’s medium- and long-range capabilities,” an Israeli air force officer concludes. “Those 735 rockets intercepted represent dozens of Israeli casualties whose lives were saved.”

In testing, this system of systems has scored successes on 66 of 82 hit-to-kill intercept attempts since 2001. That’s an 80-percent success rate. The Aegis sea-based system has achieved 29 successful intercepts in 35 attempts. The ground-based interceptor (which targets inbound threats near their highest point) has hit 9 of 17 intercept attempts. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD, which targets threats near the end of their flight trajectories) has scored a perfect 11 out of 11 in testing.

Still, the critics latch on to the system’s misses and costs as reason to downgrade missile defense, knowing that defining success as a 100-percent intercept rate makes “failure” inevitable. But nothing made by man works 100 percent of the time. Moreover, if an American or allied city is ever in the crosshairs of an inbound missile, who would prefer a 0-percent chance of intercepting the killer rocket—something guaranteed by not testing and not fielding a missile shield—over an 80-percent or even 50-percent chance?

As to costs, protecting the U.S. from missile-armed madmen is not the cause of our fiscal woes. The U.S. has invested a total of $173.4 billion on missile defense since FY1985. In comparison to the Pentagon’s budget (about $600 billion in 2015), the size of big-ticket social programs (Medicare’s 2014 tab was $513.1 billion in 2014) or the overall federal budget (pegged at $3.8 trillion in 2016), the amount invested in missile defense is miniscule. Spread over 31 years, missile defense has cost $5.5 billion annually.

The second reason for optimism is the growing global architecture of missile defenses. The operative word here is “global.” Twenty countries are part of the emerging international missile defense (IMD) coalition.

The United States serves as the cornerstone of the IMD coalition. President Bill Clinton signed legislation that paved the way for deployment of a missile-defense system “as soon as technologically feasible.” By doing so, Clinton reflected the emergence of a national consensus on the issue. Thanks to that consensus, President George W. Bush was able to accelerate the program, deploying a layered system of missile defenses, including ground-based interceptors, a chain-link fence of radars spanning the globe, sea-based Aegis interceptors and theater-wide defenses.

In 2008, NATO endorsed U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe, including Bush’s proposal for permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and IMD radars in the Czech Republic. Britain and Denmark allowed modifications to early-warning radars to support the IMD system. Spain hosts a rotation of four U.S. Aegis warships. Germany hosts a missile-defense operations center. Romania and Poland are in line to host a land-based variant of the Aegis system (more on that below). Turkey hosts a powerful IMD radar. After sitting on the sidelines for a decade, Canada is considering deployment of IMD radars.

With a wary eye on North Korea, Japan deploys Aegis warships, hosts IMD radars and is co-developing the new interceptor missile for Aegis warships. South Korea fields Patriot batteries, Aegis warships and long-range radars—all courtesy of the U.S.—and is edging toward purchasing a THAAD system. Australia and the U.S. signed a 25-year pact on missile defense in 2004.

Israel and the U.S. have collaborated on development and deployment of anti-missile systems for decades, and Israel hosts IMD radar systems. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States agreed in May to “a region-wide ballistic missile defense capability,” with Washington offering technical assistance in developing a missile-warning system for the GCC. Related, the UAE recently became the first foreign government to purchase the THAAD system.

Here in the U.S., the Pentagon will have 44 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California operating by the end of 2017. In addition, there is growing support in Congress for deploying a bed of ground-based interceptors on the East coast. The Pentagon has identified possible third-site locations in New York, Vermont, Maine, Ohio and Michigan.

The Ugly

However, the IMD system’s technical successes and global advances have occurred in spite of—rather than because of—President Barack Obama’s policies.

Unlike Clinton and Bush, Obama seems to view missile defense not as a new tool in the arsenal, but as a bargaining chip. To mollify Moscow, the Obama administration unilaterally scrapped the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans for NATO. Instead of planting permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and IMD radars in the Czech Republic, Obama opted for missile-defense warships in the Mediterranean and a temporary, moveable, untested, land-based variant of the Aegis system in Eastern Europe, dubbed “Aegis Ashore.” This watered-down version of missile defense gained nothing from Moscow and fractured relations within NATO. The Czech Republic angrily rejected Washington’s revised plans as “a consolation prize.” A Polish defense official called Obama’s decision “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 MDA, cut spending on ground-based missile defense by 22 percent, reduced the number of warships to be retrofitted with missile-defense capabilities by seven and capped the number of ground-based interceptors at 30, instead of the planned 44. (When Pyongyang started rattling nuclear sabers in 2013, the administration scrambled to deploy those extra 14 interceptors in Alaska—interceptors that would have been up and running if Obama had simply followed the plans put in place by his predecessor.) All told, missile-defense funding has been slashed from $9 billion per year to $7.8 billion per year under the Obama administration.

Those cuts have consequences. Budget cuts have eliminated $500 million for warships that were slated to be upgraded with Aegis missile defenses. The payoff: The Navy deploys 33 ships equipped with Aegis missile defenses but needed 44 to meet the demands of combatant commanders last year. By the end of 2016, “That need is expected to jump to 77 ships,” Defense News reports. MDA has enough money for just 35.


Blending a unique balance of optimism and pragmatism, President Ronald Reagan once asked, “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that…we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” He had an answer: “This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves.” Note the sequence here: Reagan knew robust missile defenses had to be in place before nuclear disarmament. Obama is trying to do the very opposite. Not only is the U.S. conventional and strategic deterrent being eroded by shortsighted budget policies, but America’s missile defenses are a skeleton of what they need to be to protect against miscalculation, mistakes and madmen. It didn’t have to be this way.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose