Opinion

Missile defense can counter a different Asian threat than coronavirus

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(Photo by South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Throughout the spring of 2020, the United States has found itself fighting off a cruel invader that originated in Asia.

We will eventually prevail over this coronavirus and get our economy up and growing again. Whether that means vaccinations, herd immunity or some other cure, it’s only a matter of time. Our country is too powerful to be permanently defeated by a virus.

However, diseases aren’t the only threat we need to guard against, today and in the future. There’s also the risk that an unfriendly regime in Asia (North Korea? China? Iran?) could launch an intercontinental missile. Such an attack could wipe out an American city and wreck our fragile economy.

To protect against that potential disaster, the U.S. needs a robust, overlapping series of defenses.

A key component will need to be Ground-based Midcourse Defense. The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance explains that the: “GMD element of the Ballistic Missile Defense System provides the capability to engage and destroy limited intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile threats in space to protect the United States homeland.” It’s a last line of defense, one we’ve never needed to use, but must have just in case.

GMD has been around for decades now. In 2001 the Bush Administration pulled out of the ABM treaty specifically so it could begin deploying defenses on American soil. It noted that “[the] threats we face today are far different from those of the Cold War.” Since 2004, dozens of interceptor missiles have been installed, mainly in Alaska, by the Missile Defense Agency.

The system has never been used against an actual missile threat, but it has passed tests and we know it can work. Just three years ago, MDA and its partner the U.S. Air Force successfully intercepted an ICBM and destroyed it. If it had been an actual threat, the system would have protected our homeland from disaster.

The system is complicated, as you may imagine. But here’s how that test worked: The defense system took its target acquisition and tracking data from the Command, Control, Battle Management and Communication system. A sea-based radar in the Pacific Ocean acquired and tracked the target. Using this tracking data, GMD determined where the target would be at what moment, fired a ground-based interceptor, and destroyed the incoming weapon.

A system like this must always be under development. You’re not simply burying weapons in the ground and hoping they’ll work when you need them. You’re endlessly running tests and developing newer and better segments of the system. For example, the warhead that was successful three years ago, the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), needs to be upgraded to an even better system. A more effective Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV) may be available in the years ahead. 

But lawmakers need to invest in GMD if the system is going to remain effective. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened in years. President Obama’s administration deliberately underfunded GMD, and the Trump administration has some people who seem eager to sideline the program as well.

Congress needs to push back. That won’t be easy since lawmakers are unable to hold hearings and are spending most of their time out of Washington or voting on coronavirus spending bills.

However, Congress needs to recognize that there are more than medical threats out there. The United States still has enemies, and we need strong defenses in order to keep those enemies from feeling empowered to attack us. 

GMD is a sensible program that has worked, and can be improved. It destroys threats while they are still in space, before they can damage our homeland. When lawmakers return to mark up the National Defense Authorization Act, they should insist on fully funding GMD, and protecting the United States against another, foreseeable, threat.

Bryan Preston

Bryan Preston served in the United States Air Force and was producer for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. He is the author of Hubble's Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries.
Bryan Preston

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