There was some encouraging news yesterday regarding a pair of key projects in the nation’s ballistic missile defense program.
First, the Deputy Director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) reported that ground-based detection radars and interceptor missiles–based in Alaska–should be able to guard against enemy attacks, while testing new technologies. Army Brigadier General Patrick O’Reilly made the comments in a speech at the George C. Marshall Institute, a public policy group. According to General O’Reilly, the nation’s missile defenses have continued to “mature” since the first group of missile interceptors became operational last summer. O’Reilly indicated that the system may be fully operational “within a year,” but said no announcement will be made when the defensive shield reaches that operational milestone. Eventually, the network will include up to 44 interceptor missiles, 40 based in Alaska, and the rest at Vandenburg AFB in California.
General O’Reilly also noted that the defensive system now being fielded has achieved success in 14 of 15 flight tests conducted so far. That appears to be an indirect shot at Congressional Democrats, who have threatened to “gut” missile defense, by implementing a more stringent testing program. We reported on those efforts, led by Michigan Senator Carl Levin, last December. O’Reilly’s response is clear: BMD is already meeting its test objectives and (in some cases), exceeding them.
Given that impressive track record, and considering the growing missile threat from North Korea, Iran and other rogue states, Levin and his colleagues would be smart to simply shut up and color. But, alas, that won’t be the case. Mr. Levin and his Democratic colleagues have opposed missile defense since Ronald Reagan first proposed it more than 20 years ago; they won’t miss an opportunity to derail the program–perhaps permanently–by instituting test goals that are impossible to achieve.
On a related note, Air Force Times is reporting that another key BMD program is facing an equally important test. In the coming weeks, the Air Force’s Airborne Laser (ABL) will test-fire its low-powered laser in flight for the first time. The test will determine if the ABL (mounted on a highly-modified Boeing 747-400) can track an airborne target and measure atmospheric turbulence. If that test goes well, the Times reports, the Air Force and Boeing will proceed with integration of a high-power, chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) into the aircraft. The COIL is ABL’s missile killer, designed to destroy ballistic missiles in the boost phase.
ABL has a limited range, but it is an ideal weapon for targeting short and medium-range ballistic missiles, including China’s CSS-6/7, North Korean SCUD variants and the Iranian Shahab-3. By targeting outbound missiles in their boost phase–when they’re most vulnerable–ABL will relieve some of the pressure on theater-level missile defenses, including Patriot batteries, the new THAAD system, and Aegis-equipped naval vessels, modified to fire Standard Missile 2 Block IV interceptors. Given a chance, Mr. Levin will likely extend his ridiculously stringent testing requirements to ABL as well, making it more difficult for the airborne laser to achieve operational status.
Former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was right when he observed that a missile defense system doesn’t have to be perfect to be deployed. Collectively, the land-based defenses in Alaska and California (and possibly, in eastern Europe), coupled with sea-based Aegis platforms, will provide increasing levels of protection against missile attacks. At the same time, THAAD will expand the defensive envelope at the theater level, improving our ability to intercept short and medium-range missiles that are difficult for Patriot batteries to handle. None of these systems will ever be perfect, but they offer a much higher probability of intercept than the “no defenses” approach favored by Mr. Levin.
Senator Levin’s likely attempts to undermine BMD again illustrate why the party of Harry Truman and Scoop Jackson can no longer be trusted with the nation’s security.