President Ronald Reagan proposed in March 1983 that the US scientific community develop the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. He hoped to shift the international security environment away from a balance of terror, which was then commonly referred to as mutual assured destruction, to a more reliable deterrent strategy.

The then-Secretary of State was so unsettled upon hearing of the President’s forthcoming speech that upon entering the Oval Office to preview the president’s remarks, he exclaimed, “Some darn fool is trying to sell you on missile defense, Mr. President.”

The reaction of the media and the academic community to the President’s March 1983 speech was also one of incredulity. The Hartford Courant in an editorial described the idea as “Star Wars,” a phrase quickly repeated by a number of senators who announced their opposition to the President’s plan. Shortly thereafter, a prominent group of nuclear physicists warned that US missile defenses would cause a war between the United States and the USSR. They contended that missile defense would “upset détente.” By 1984, then presidential candidate Walter Mondale made opposition to missile defense a central plank in his campaign against Reagan. And even as late as 2000, the Democratic Party platform opposed what they termed “an ill-conceived missile defense system” that would plunge the United States “into a new arms race”.

A Thousand Interceptors

Now, some thirty years after the 1983 speech, the United States has deployed over 1,000 missile interceptors of all kinds, from the Army’s Patriot and Theater High Altitude Defense, to the Aegis Standard Missiles aboard Navy cruisers. In addition, silo-based ground-based interceptors were deployed in Alaska and California on alert to defend against long range ballistic missiles from such nations as North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Allies from Japan, England, the Republic of Korea, Australia, Israel, Denmark, Spain, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Holland, Italy, and Taiwan have built complimentary missile defense systems and radars, or are working closely with the United States to do so in the future. Plans for this decade alone might bring the number of worldwide allied missile defense interceptors to over 1,500 and likely closer to 2,000.

Emerging Technology and Challenges Ahead

Reagan’s hope to destroy “missiles as they come out of their silos” remains a key hurdle. According to retired General Uzi Rubin, the former director of the Arrow missile defense program in Israel, early interception from the sea, against both North Korean and Iranian rockets, would be doable with greater interceptor speeds. This is one of the future goals of the US European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), a plan to deploy greater technological capability over time, including faster interceptors than the current ship-based Standard Missile.

Space-based systems including sensors could also work, especially those developed during the Reagan and Bush administrations. They are highly effective. When combined with the current ground and sea-based systems, such defensive capabilities could, as a March 1992 report to Congress stated, “contribute to the deterrence of intentional limited strikes by undermining their military and political value.” Space systems also avoid the need for prior allied country agreements to base ground systems in their country.



More importantly, the report correctly predicted the significant growth of ballistic missile threats in the Persian Gulf area and the need to move beyond seeing missile defense almost entirely through the prism of arms control and strategic stability with Moscow. And this new rocket laden landscape we face also features alliances between terror groups and states, such as the one between Hezbollah and Iran. The former is armed with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles of varying ranges, primarily from Iran, Syria, North Korea, and China. Missiles have thus become instruments of state power as well as leverage for terror groups that was previously associated only with states.

This change has been increasingly recognized by American security experts. The Obama administration’s new security policy announced on January 3, 2012 called “Sustaining Global Leadership” pays particular attention to the continued international proliferation of ballistic missiles, which it warns will challenge US interests. It then calls for “improving missile defenses” in order to allow the United States to operate effectively in most air and sea environments.

This is consistent with an important warning from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, who noted the United States “faces more threats than a decade ago,” including growing arsenals of missiles. In July 1996, Dan Henniger noted this trend as well, explaining that while once we worried about “huge Soviet style missiles,” smaller, short range rockets are evolving into sophisticated and accurate ballistic missiles with the aid of new technology, such as cheap inertial and satellite navigation systems. Worse yet, such missiles fall well outside existing arms control treaties with Russia.

In addition, the rockets can be used as instruments of terror, and are capable of carrying biological and chemical weapons. This could potentially transform short range rockets of seemingly limited strategic usefulness into instruments of state power. To make matters worse, such rocket technology is easily available from North Korea, China, and Syria, who have become major suppliers.

Much of this was predicted by the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission on Ballistic Missile Threats to the United States. At the time, its surprising assessment was that rogue states working cooperatively could deploy ballistic missiles of increasing range far quicker than conventional intelligence assessments had previously thought possible. But the report, in a little known “Side Letter,” also warned that ballistic missiles of all ranges were becoming instruments of state directed coercion, terror, and blackmail.

One of the more prescient observers of the security environment, Robert Kaplan, explained in 2006 why this emerging threat was so serious:

“The biggest strategic problem today isn’t past notions of big-power miscalculation but new rogue regimes whose ideology means they ‘cannot be gratified through negotiations.’ Absent any in-place protection against the missiles described here, ‘defense’ means either an Israel-type counteroffensive, nuclear retaliation or open-ended diplomacy, cease-fires and negotiation. None of these suffice. Widely available tables showing the proliferation of missiles listed by nation boggle the mind. Put simply, in terms of post-launch, we are behind the curve.”



These threats, if not deterred, may very well tempt rogue states, such as Iran, to take risks that they would not otherwise contemplate. Some have cautioned that while exact historical analogies are dicey, the current Iranian leadership hardliners are acting not unlike Imperial Japan before Pearl Harbor, and believe America can be defeated because we do not have the will to resist Iranian efforts at hegemony in the Gulf region.

There is also, unfortunately, a tendency among some, including senior members of Congress, to dismiss such missile threats based in part on seemingly objective “professional” assessments of the same view.

For example, in the spring of 2009, the East West Institute reported Iran could not stage rockets or deploy solid fueled missiles. Solid fuel enables a missile to perpetually be on alert 24/7, while staging allows a rocket to exceed the limits of a Scud type missile where the warhead remains fixed on the missile body, which tends to limit the range of such rockets to 2000 kilometers.

Within a matter of days of the report’s release, Uzi Rubin, now the President of Rubicon, a defense consulting firm in Israel, revealed using open sources that Iran had indeed tested both staged and solid-fueled missiles. In short, he noted that Iran was “now in the ICBM business,” and had exceeded the technical capability of the North Koreans from whom they had originally secured much of their missile technology.

A Renewed Paradigm

From the perspective of this new landscape, the issue of missile defense primarily being solely part of the “United States and Russian strategic nuclear weapons and the strategic balance” appears no longer credible. It is true that just after the end of the Cold War, both the Accidental Launch Protection System (ALPS), and the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS), were early proposed missile defense frameworks that grew out of the end of the US-Soviet era. The fear then was one of a rogue Russian missile launch, which grew out of uncertainty over Kremlin control over its nuclear arsenal at the end of the Cold War. But potential missile threats from terrorist sponsoring states were also part of the political thinking.

But as the Rumsfeld report of 1998 and the Kaplan and Rubin reports of 2006 revealed, missiles were already being deployed far beyond the US-Russia context as instruments of rogue state power. We learned this, for example, during the massive rocket launches of both Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel this past decade, as well as during the Gulf War.

Poisonous Coalitions

Once we understand the new threat landscape, the question arises over the purpose of such new arsenals. What exactly are these nations seeking? Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Admiral La Rocque from the Center for Defense Information, explain Iranian and North Korean missile deployments simply: they only seek regime survival and are defending themselves against US threats. Is this true?

First, we have to carefully examine the terrorist threat, and the related nature of their allied regimes seeking ballistic missiles. To do so, it is helpful to hearken back to an interview with the head of the Northern Alliance (the United Islamic Front), Ahmad Shah Massoud, the commander most responsible for the defeat of the Soviet Union. Also known as the “Lion of Panjshir,” he strongly rejected the Taliban. Briefly, Minister of Defense in the government that replaced the communist backed Najibullah, he went back to the armed opposition when the Taliban seized power.



Before his murder two days prior to 9/11, Massoud warned the West: “Al-Qaeda is just one element [a minor one] in a poisonous coalition that includes Pakistani and Arab intelligence agencies, impoverished young students bused to their deaths as volunteer fighters from Pakistani religious schools, exiled Central Asian Islamic radicals, and wealthy sheikhs or preachers jetted in from the Persian Gulf.”

Cold War Terrorism Origins

Massoud’s views of the nature of terrorism were but an echo of a battle in Washington nearly two decades earlier. In 1981, Secretary of State Haig said Cuba and the Soviet Union were the prime sponsors of worldwide terrorism. Most foreign policy experts disagreed. They said Haig was upsetting “détente” and “peaceful coexistence.”

As a result, the President tasked the Central Intelligence Agency to examine Moscow’s connections to terrorism. In their 1981 assessment, the USSR was, quote, “opposed to terrorism.” When asked by the Director of Central Intelligencefor documentation, the subsequent evidence turned out to be a stack of editorials from TASS and Pravda, the official Soviet state television and press organs.

Shortly after General Haig’s testimony, the Boston Review published a 1981 article saying that the connections between the USSR and terrorism were “fanciful” and that “what remains about the case for the Soviet connection rests less on fact than on innuendo.” A 1994 book written by Raymond Garthoff then alleged that Haig and Casey were “neoconservative Cold Warriors,” “eager to connect the Soviet Union with terrorism.”

However, Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ 1996 book “From the Shadows,” explains that an analytical section established within the CIA to study Soviet deception, covert activities and terrorist connections found evidence, later confirmed by Soviet archives, proving Reagan, Casey, and Haig unequivocally right.

Terrorism of Today: A New Coalition

In light of this debate, how should we then look at today’s terrorism, and especially its prime practitioners, Iran, Syria, and North Korea? We know that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty process and the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA), which had been our major tools for dealing with both the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, had been used by both countries to conceal their nuclear programs. Iraq did the same leading up to the 1991 Gulf War.

“Terrorism” according to conventional wisdom resulted from genuine grievances against US policy. According to Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times, the 1953 coup in Iran led directly to the rise of Khomeini in Iran and subsequently the 9/11 attacks. President Clinton also argued that establishing a Palestinian state would end most terrorism directed against the United States.

What then is the nature of this new “poisonous coalition”? We know Syria’s nuclear reactor was paid for with Iranian money and built with North Korean technology. Just recently, the New York Federal Southern District Court has found sufficient evidence to find Iran complicit in the attacks of 9/11 with information that first came to light at the very end of the 9/11 Commission investigation.



What makes such a coalition so potentially deadly is described by David Sanger of the New York Times: “It is not that terrorists will necessarily buy or steal a nuclear weapon. It is that a proxy terror group will be given a nuclear device by an Iran or a Syria or a state sponsor of terrorism.” Thus, while extremely valuable, the tools of Nunn-Lugar and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency,which helps lock-down and eliminate nuclear material, are almost exclusively effective only with “cooperative countries.”

New Threats

Iran has certainly worked on an entire range of technologies inherent in the making of nuclear weapons. They have achieved the ability to launch rockets in excess of 3,000 kilometers and are now working on a new 10,000 kilometer range missile. They have tested missiles in the Caspian in an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) mode—designed to explode a warhead tens of kilometers above the earth’s surface and render the electrical grid and other key infrastructure unworkable for years. Two Congressional Commission reports outlined this EMP threat in great detail in reports this past decade.

Missile defense in this context is now far removed from the “arms control” context in which it had been universally held. Missile defense now becomes a major tool of counter-terrorism. Old arguments that all missiles have “return addresses,” and therefore their use easily deterred, make little sense.

Rockets launched from off-shore freighters would be surreptitious with no easily identifiable return address except the wide expanse of the ocean. We have German reports of missiles developed by Iran in Venezuela--putting Miami exactly in range of Iran’s Shahab 3 missile.

Emerging Missile Defense Needs

What role then should missile defense play? The grid and a majority of its some 3,000 key transformers can be protected from both solar storms and a nuclear EMP missile launch, both of which could cripple the US infrastructure. With new technology developed by a US and European joint venture, the grid can be protected for roughly US$2 per American. At the same time, upwards of US$1.8 billion can be saved annually in electrical generation costs.

But even if the grid is protected against EMP threats, missile defense is also needed to protect America’s coastal cities from short or medium range missiles that could be launched from maritime environments. One threat is the potential detonation of a nuclear warhead over an American city. The option of “standard missile ashore”—putting Navy Aegis missiles on land with a TPY2 radar—could help defend our cities.



Defeating a freighter launched missile in an EMP attack mode would be possible with missile defense, although more feasible from space. If a rocket were launched by North Korea or Iran from an ICBM range, our currently deployed system in Alaska would be capable of intercepting the warhead, but if augmented by an east coast deployment would significantly better protect the country

The United States does not have to do this alone. Over the past decade, it is remarkable that the United States and its allies have or are planning to deploy missile defenses and sensors in some two dozen countries.

While this improves regional protection of our allies, our homeland needs better defenses as well. Unfortunately, potential homeland defense technologies such as the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor have been pared back or terminated. Both were aimed at achieving early intercept, a key current challenge. Early intercept is much needed, as it destroys rockets before they deploy decoys and counter measures, a critical insurance hedge against future threat developments.

Some critics see missile defenses as part of a sinister two-step process: “First the shield and then the sword” has been one common argument used to portray missile defense as part of an implicit strategy of US aggression rather than a tool of counter-terrorism.

Many suggest that defenses in space would weaponize space. Think then about the oceans, another “commons” used by most nations. We have hundreds of US and allied Navy vessels plying the seas, protecting international commerce, and close to US$1 trillion in crude oil sales. We hardly worry that the US Navy has “weaponized” the oceans. Especially with piracy up 170 percent this past year due to increasing profitability in targeting the oil trade, such measures are well-warranted.

The European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), and the center piece of NATO cooperative missile defenses, relies in significant part on the enhancement of the speed of the standard missile interceptor or other missile to achieve future phases of deployment. If delayed significantly, the enterprise may be in jeopardy. NATO and the United States would be at risk. One potential back-up to the Aegis Standard Missile (SM) is the two-stage rocket originally scheduled to be deployed in Poland.

Space-based interceptors were found as long ago as the summer of 1993 to be possible both technologically and economically. They could be deployed in a limited preferential basis over certain areas of the globe and thus not threaten strategic stability. Given their effectiveness against possible counter-measures and decoys, the argument that the current US failure to deploy missile defenses able to discriminate between fake warhead-decoys and real ones falls away.

It is true we face major fiscal threats and that it is often argued that missile defense should be sharply curtailed. However, in perspective, missile defense is two tenths of one percent of the federal budget today and if maintained at the current funding level, will be fifteen percent of one percent of the Federal budget in 10 years. Non-security spending is scheduled to reach nearly US$4.5 trillion at the end of the decade, which is a 500 to 1 ratio to all missile defense spending. John Diamond, Saga Foundation Fellow, estimated in 2008 the cost of one nuclear warhead detonated above Manhattan at trillions of dollars. It would seem worth spending US$9 billion on all missile defenses each year to defend against such a threat.



Missile Lessons

In Sederot, Israel, the police chief maintains a shed filled with thousands of rockets fired from Gaza. In three years, Tel Aviv built the Iron Dome to defend against these rockets. A large volley of rockets was recently destroyed by the Iron Dome as Israeli operators listened to shocked Hamas rocket operators angry at the Israeli’s new defenses.

General Kevin Campbell, the past Commander of the Space and Missile Defense Command, explained in a 2010 speech in Huntsville, Alabama how missile defense takes away the coercive or blackmail leverage an adversary might gain. He noted “we need not match the offensive inventory rocket for rocket,” but “we need to buy the time necessary to then strike back and eliminate the arsenal held by the ‘bad guys.’” That’s using the shield and the sword together.

The former national security adviser to the President of the Republic of Korea, Hahm Pyong Choon, lectured at Yonsei University in the late 1960s. Choon warned that if the United States ever left the peninsula, North Korea could hold at risk American cities with nuclear weapons to prevent the United States from coming to Seoul’s defense in the event of a North Korean invasion. As the former Commander of the US Strategic Command noted, “missile defense provides an American President with the ability not to be blackmailed in such a situation.”

In 2009, at a conference hosted by the Prague Security Institute, Vaclav Havel said missile defenses in the Czech Republic would cement ties between the United States, the newly free countries of Eastern Europe, and NATO. Russia’s ability to bully them would be gone forever.

There is wisdom among these advocates of missile defense—the Chief of Police, the SMDC Commander, the NSC Adviser to the South Korean president, and the former president of Czechoslovakia. There was also wisdom when Reagan, thirty years ago, in reply to the Secretary of State’s skepticism regarding his support of missile defense, said plainly: “That would be me.” 



Peter Huessy has worked on a wide range of national security and defense-related issues, and is the president and founder of the defense consulting firm GeoStrategic Analysis. In August of 2011, he also joined the American Foreign Policy Council as Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs.