Just as the first units of a national missile defense are about to become operational, the Missile Defense Agency that made it happen is getting new leadership.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish did what many considered impossible. In just four years, he moved national missile defense from endless research to real weapons that soon will be on alert, protecting the country.
Early this month, Gen. Kadish moved on to a well-deserved retirement and was replaced by his deputy, Air Force Maj. Gen. Henry Obering, who will get his third star soon.
Gen. Obering faces both challenge and opportunity. The challenge is to continue deploying missile defenses — land-and sea-based — in the face of persistent political opposition. The opportunity is to reshape the program's future to provide the best, most cost-effective defense against an evolving threat.
The initial missile defense site was dedicated over the July Fourth weekend at Fort Greely, Alaska, where the first interceptor is on site and expected to be operational by September. It is none too soon.
South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-gil told the National Assembly last week North Korea is deploying new intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a range of up to 2,500 miles, and is testing a new main engine for its Taepodong-2 missile, which may be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
South Korean press reports say 10 of the new missiles were seen by a U.S. satellite at two bases in the North. If the range estimates are accurate, they would go up to 3 times farther than the Nodong missiles North Korea uses to threaten Japan and U.S. bases there, adding Okinawa and Guam to targetable places. Then there is a reported new intelligence estimate North Korea may already have produced at least eight nuclear weapons and could produce six more a year, making the threat from that outcast regime all too real.
Meanwhile, China hurls almost daily threats to attack Taiwan, continues building up its short-range missiles opposite the island, and develops new long-range missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland. Beijing's goal is to limit U.S. freedom of action by nuclear intimidation if there is a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
Of course, Russia is no longer a hostile power, but Moscow still has 845 operational intercontinental ballistic missiles and 232 submarine-launch missiles, mostly aging and increasingly unreliable. With so many nuclear missiles still in service, an accidental or unauthorized launch remains a possibility that cannot be discounted.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) soon to bein servicein Alaska and California, together with shipboard interceptors in the Sea of Japan and North Pacific, will protect against North Korean missiles or an accidental launch, and reduce Beijing's ability to adversely influence U.S. policy. Gen. Obering's first priority is to get these first land- and sea-based defenses operational, and then expand and strengthen them.
There is a much to do on this over the next several years, and Congress is fully funding that part of the missile defense effort.
For the longer term, Congress is skeptical about the course the Missile Defense Agency plans to follow. The Senate cut $252 million from the $511 million request to develop a very high-speed interceptor for a future boost-phase intercept capability known as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI). There is a growing realization this long-term project will absorb too much of the missile defense budget in future years and turn agency focus from deploying defenses to costly futuristic technologies.
The administration appealed the proposed cut, claiming the KEI will be needed to complement the GMD defense 10 or more years from now, when defenses now being deployed could become vulnerable to decoys and other countermeasures.
Thus, the request is to spend $511 million next year on a requirement that may or may not arise a decade hence. There is a suspicion the agency is reacting to the unfounded criticisms of anti-missile defense activists, who claim decoys will neutralize the interceptors.
It will take years to get all currently planned ground-based and sea-based defenses in the field, and even longer to produce, deploy and internet the complete complex of supporting radars and space-based sensors. The ability to distinguish warheads from decoys will improve greatly when all the planned sensors are in place. And the planned Multiple Kill Vehicle, for which just $37 million is requested next year, would make it possible to destroy warheads and decoys at a fraction of the KEI cost.
The Senate is right. Gen. Obering should focus on getting these very complex systems defending the country and defer spending billions on next-generation technologies until it is clear what will be needed, and how best to meet that need, 10 years from now.