A mix of ground and sea-based systems are now in place that can protect all 50 states from a limited missile strike launched from North Korea, Iran or other rogue state.
Next up is the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system scheduled for deployment in 2010. It can protect against short- and medium-range missiles at longer ranges and higher altitudes than the interceptors now in use.
The THAAD system will complement existing anti-missile defenses – not replace them – adding another layer to America’s existing multi-layered anti-missile defense blanket.
The United States is in a stronger position today in terms of anti-missile defense, because it withdrew from Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) Treaty in 2002, according to Baker Spring, a national security expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The ABM Treaty, signed by the U.S. and former Soviet Union back in 1972, placed limitations and restrictions on the use of anti-missile systems.
To comply with ABM in the 1990s, America’s sea-based defensive network was “dumbed down,” Spring told CNSNews.com. As an example, certain naval vessels could not use their radar to communicate with one another and share data, said Spring.
Since 2002, however, military officials have been able to test and deploy sea-based weapons that were previously underdeveloped, Spring said.
While President Bush deserves credit for that, said Spring, he added that the administration has not done enough to advance a space-based missile shield in step with what President Reagan had outlined in the 1980s.
Spring supports further research and testing on the “Brilliant Pebbles” system, which theoretically would be capable of destroying missiles in all stages of flight. The program has not been active since the early 1990s.
“I would give the Bush administration an ‘A-’ on missile defense policy and a ‘B-’ on the programmatic elements,” Spring told CNSNews.com. “We went from having virtually nothing a few years ago to having one where the basic ‘hit to kill’ technology is being applied in meaningful and effective ways.
“Even so, I think more could have been done to move into outer space and to revive technologies that were snuffed out during the Clinton years,” he added.
Thus far, 24 Ground Based Interceptors (GBI’s) have been installed in silos in Alaska and California with an eye toward terrorist states like North Korea and Iran.
A GBI is made of three rocket boosters and an “exo-atmospheric kill vehicle” (EKV) that operates with sensors and ground-based technology to zero-in on a targeted missile. The 152 pound EKVs, which look like fat rockets, are designed to collide with incoming ballistic missiles in outer space.
Those GBIs are backed up by U.S. Navy Aegis cruisers and destroyers that carry missile defense systems at sea. (See related article)
Aegis vessels are armed with missile interceptors launched from tube-like structures that can be applied against short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
Over the near term, the United States will bolster its ground- and sea-based capabilities to the point where 44 long-range GBIs will be up and operational at missile fields in Alaska and California by the end of 2011, according to the testimony of U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, who serves as director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) at the Defense Department.
Obering also anticipates having 18 Aegis ships, including 15 destroyers and three cruisers, to contribute to long-range defenses by the end of this year. The U.S. Navy plans to install up to 100 missile interceptors on the Aegis systems in the early part of 2009, which can track and shoot down incoming missiles.
Benefits of THAAD
The THAAD system provides defense planners with a “rapidly deployable” and “highly mobile” ground-based component that will “deepen, extend, and compliment” the U.S. defense posture, according to the MDA.
The system works through four means: truck-mounted launchers, missile interceptors, radar and a fire control communications system.
(Oct. 27, 2007 - Fourth successful Ground Based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) test. A THAAD interceptor launched from Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) in Kauai, Hawaii.)
“THAAD allows you to defend a much larger footprint,” Jeff Kueter, president of the George Marshall Institute, told CNSNews.com. “It has faster systems [than the Patriot] and has the ability to detect and discriminate missiles at greater distances, and most important of all, it can intercept a missile more quickly.
“This means it will be able to defend a larger footprint without buying lots and lots of Patriot batteries,” Kueter said.
Although he credits the Bush administration for moving forward with a credible and effective missile shield that can be applied against the relatively limited arsenals of North Korea and Iran, Kueter also thinks it is time to move toward space-based capabilities.
“We have this nascent system that offers us some protection, but we need to begin looking at the next generation of technology,” he said.
“The immediate concern for us at the institute is that the funding for long-term programs has been shifted to near-term priorities and that we are eating our seed corn instead of investing as much as we should in projects that offer a more complete defense,” Kueter added.
But Kueter’s criticisms of Bush were measured. Even as he faulted the administration for not pushing harder for outer-space capabilities, Kueter acknowledged that the emphasis Bush placed on the most advanced, easily deployable hardware was understandable given the political realities.
Looking to the future, Kueter and other missile defense advocates have identified two programs in development that could potentially take out ballistic missiles in their boost phase. A boost phase is the earliest stage of a rocket launch, within the first two minutes of flight.
One system, the Airborne Laser, is housed inside a 747 aircraft and is designed to hit a moving missile or similar target. The first demonstration of this technology is scheduled for 2009, according to the MDA.
Kinetic Energy Interceptors (KEI) are essentially fast, advanced rockets that can catch up with ballistic missiles shortly after they have been launched, Kueter explained. They could be deployed in a variety of land and sea configurations depending upon strategic needs.
Future administrations build on the achievements of President Bush by ensuring the survival of long-term projects such as the Airborne Laser and the KEIs, while also fostering defensive alliances with key partners like Japan and NATO countries, said Kueter.