To Defend the Homeland, Missile Defense is a Necessary Expense

The Trump administration’s May 2017 budget request for (FY) 2018 would have maintained a level of missile defense funding similar to that employed during the last years of the Obama administration.

As the Trump administration continues to pour money into the military, one budgetary item in particular has undergone renewed scrutiny: missile defense.

The Trump administration’s May 2017 budget request for (FY) 2018 would have maintained a level of missile defense funding similar to that employed during the last years of the Obama administration. In the wake of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests, however, Congress approved a White House reprogramming request that allocated an additional $368 million to missile defense spending – $249 million of which was directed to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

In December 2017, President Trump announced that the United States will be deploying a layered missile defense system to defend the country against missile attacks. One the most important components of the system – and perhaps the most widely criticized – is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). It is the only system that protects the homeland. Unlike other domestically-based systems, GMD intercepts missiles in space without producing harmful nuclear fallout. It is designed to deflect a limited number of intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles, a threat posed by North Korea and potentially Iran.

As the program’s budget grows, skeptics have once again voiced familiar criticisms. In February, the New York Times published an editorialentitled, “The Dangerous Illusion of Missile Defense.” The piece advances several arguments against missile defense. For one, it suggests that missile defense isn’t reliable and effective, due to the percentage of failed tests. Thus, the editorial seemingly implies that investments in missile defense are not cost-effective. Moreover, the authors postulate that the program could embolden the president to take military action against adversaries. They conclude that missile defense is not a solution to the threats from Iran and North Korea.

Such grievances are nothing new. The Times has a long record of hostility to missile defense generally and GMD specifically. They criticized the George W. Bush administration for its investments in GMD while praising Obama’s cuts. Their tone has changed little over the years, regardless of the progress made on missile defense technology. The New York Times is part of the same crowd that opposes not only missile defense, but virtually every other investment in weapons systems to defend the homeland.

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While the aforementioned editorial raises some important points, its criticisms are misguided. GMD may be flawed, but it is nonetheless a critical line of defense against one of America’s most dangerous threats. 

First, the Times’ assertion that the GMD is ineffective stands in contrast to claims by top generals and other military professionals. When asked by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb) about the NYT editorial, Head of North American Aerospace Defense Command Lori Robinson responded: “I am 100 percent confident in my ability to defend the United States of America.” Many other top defense officials have expressed similar confidence in the US’s missile defense capabilities.

To support their argument, the New York Times claims that the GMD’s success rate is around 50 percent. A closer look at the data reveals a brighter truth. Importantly, this statistic – based on only a small number of tests – refers to the success rate of a single interceptor missile. In an actual ICBM attack, multiple interceptors would be fired at each incoming missile, thereby significantly raising the likelihood of success.

Bleak assessments of the GMD also fail to adequately consider the continued advancements in missile defense technology. GMD critics point to every failed test as more evidence that the system doesn’t work. But what they overlook is that such setbacks are a natural and essential part of technological progression. With each missed intercept, the military learns vital lessons that are used to inform improvements in the system, thus enhancing the technology’s capabilities with each successive test. A more nuanced analysis of recent tests demonstrates this phenomenon. Consider that of the eight tests conducted on Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs), five have been successful. As Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, writes for Defense One, two of the three failures involved the new CEII kill vehicle, which had not previously been tested. But having learned from these missteps, the MDA was able to correct its errors, resulting in a successful third test. Indeed, it is this process of trial and error that has enabled North Korea to achieve tremendous improvements in its ICBMs. If the US is to keep up with its adversaries’ technology, it must embrace this same fruitful mindset.

Beyond questioning GMD’s effectiveness, the Times makes a theoretical argument: that the program may embolden the president to attack North Korea. In reality, there is little evidence that the GMD would encourage U.S. aggression – under Trump’s leadership or otherwise – much less a preemptive or preventive strike on North Korea. To the contrary, effective missile defense strengthens U.S. deterrence and makes diplomacy and sanctions more likely to work. The more the US expands and refines GMD, the less effective North Korea’s missiles become and the more incentive it has to give them up. Considering that decades of diplomacy and sanctions have failed to curb the Kim regime’s nuclear and ICBM programs, the added pressure resulting from GMD is all the more important.

Despite the understated success of the GMD program, the Times is right about one thing: current missile defense technology is flawed. But so is every other technology – military or otherwise. Critics hold missile defense to a standard no technology can meet. GMD is not foolproof and it is not the only answer. It is one part of a broader approach – the last of multiple layers of defense against a limited ICBM attack. The recent test failures of the Aegis system only reinforce the need for a layered missile defense shield that accounts for a diverse array of threats and the imperfect record of all individual missile defense systems. Moreover, to use technological flaws as a justification for reducing funds makes little sense. Instead, the opposite conclusion is warranted. GMD budget cuts during the Obama administration are partly to blame for the program’s current inadequacies, making it even more important now to give the GMD the resources it needs to catch up. Missile defense has shown considerable success and improvement, but such gains can only be sustained with sufficient funding and political will.

GMD may be costly and imperfect, but it is an overall effective program and a worthwhile expense. It is the last line of defense against a limited ICBM attack on the homeland. Were Washington to again cut missile defense funding, such technology would fall behind that of our adversaries, leaving the U.S. increasingly vulnerable to a devastating attack. With millions of lives at stake, that is not a risk America can afford.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

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