Quietly, almost imperceptibly, outside the glare of the Beltway and beyond the daily chaos of the war on terror, the US military is continuing to piece together an international missile defense system (IMD). Indeed, spring 2006 has brought with it new support and new partners from Europe, deeper cooperation in the Pacific, hopeful signs from friends in North America, steady advances on the technology front, and ever more ominous threats in the Middle East and Northeast Asia.
First, the good news.
Early in his presidency, George W. Bush vowed to begin operating the IMD's "initial capabilities in 2004 and 2005." Making good on the president's promise, the Pentagon started deploying the first interceptors at Ft. Greely, Alaska, in July 2004. Today, there are nine interceptors online in Alaska and another two at Vandenberg AFB, California. As the decade moves forward, the Pentagon will stand up a total of 30 interceptors at the two bases.
Still, the key word here is "initial." Missile defense remains a work in progress. For example, a highly sophisticated X-band radar is being towed by sea from Hawaii to Adak, Alaska, which sits some 1,200 miles southwest of Anchorage. Once activated, it will discern between decoys and warheads as small as a baseball, and keep a watchful eye on inbound traffic from Beijing and Pyongyang.
Elsewhere on the high seas, May saw the Navy fire an SM-2 anti-missile missile from the deck of an Aegis cruiser and kill an inbound threat in its terminal phase (the final few seconds of flight). "It was the first sea-based intercept of a ballistic missile in its terminal phase," according to the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).
Likewise, the MDA scored a land-based success in May, when rocketeers at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico test-fired a high-altitude interceptor missile designed to seek out and destroy inbound threats in their final minute of flight.
In the skies, the Airborne Laser -- a missile-killing laser mounted on a 747 that can loiter outside enemy territory and destroy a missile long before it threatens American soil -- continues to hit its marks. Ground-based testing of the laser was completed in December, with a new round of flight-tests scheduled for this coming fall, all building toward a full-blown missile-intercept above Edwards AFB sometime in 2008.
Finally, in space, the MDA plans to begin deploying a "Space-Based Interceptor Test Bed" by 2008, which could give the US the ability to launch missile-killing satellites.
As the technological pieces fall into place, so too does the IMD alliance: The Polish and Czech governments are negotiating with Washington on the deployment of anti-missile bases on their soil, enabling the IMD system to peer deep into Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The Poles have even expressed a willingness to open their territory to missile interceptors. The Pentagon is ready to invest an estimated $1.6 billion in what will be the IMD's easternmost outpost in Europe. With plans to deploy ten missile-killers in Europe by 2011, the Pentagon is expected to choose a site this summer. (Given the Poles' strong and open support for the program and the Czechs' more low-key approach, the smart money is on Poland.)
The IMD's blossoming support in Poland and the Czech Republic follows crucial decisions in Britain to approve upgrades at Fylingdales (in 2003) and in Denmark to approve similar upgrades in Thule, Greenland (in 2004). Once used to scan the skies for Soviet bombers, the bases in Britain and Greenland will now monitor the European horizon for accidental or rogue missile launches.
And this is just a microcosm of NATO's newfound interest in missile defenses: After completing (in May of this year) a four-year, 10,000-page study on missile defense, NATO officially believes the program is technologically and financially feasible. And a growing number of NATO members believe it's necessary. Spurred by events in Iran, governments in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway are cooperating with Washington on elements of missile defense. Turkey is also investing in missile defenses. Stephen Harper, Canada's no-nonsense prime minister, wants to re-engage with Washington on missile defense. The previous government held an agnostic view of the system, opting out of full participation in mid-2005.
Elsewhere, Australia signed a 25-year pact on missile defense cooperation in 2004; Israel has already deployed its link in the IMD chain, the Arrow anti-missile system; and now the US and India are opening the way toward IMD cooperation.
But no member of this amorphous IMD coalition seems more serious about the threat than Japan. With Kim Jong-Il just next door, that's understandable. According to the MDA, the Japanese system already includes a network of new ground-based radars; SM-3 interceptors, which attack incoming missiles at their highest point; missile-tracking Aegis warships, which patrol near rogue countries; and Patriot PAC-3s, which serve as a last line of defense. Last month, Japan agreed to deploy a new X-band radar near Misawa to support US and Japanese anti-missile assets. The two allies also agreed to establish a joint air and missile defense base at Yakota Air Base by 2010.
Plus, as the Claremont Institute's project on missile defense reported last month, the US and Japan have agreed to deploy new batteries of PAC-3 interceptor missiles at the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. "Japan also plans to deploy PAC-3 batteries at bases in the Saitama and Shizuoka prefectures near Tokyo," according to Claremont. The two nations are also committed to co-developing a newer version of the SM-3.
Why the rush? The answer to that question leads us to the bad news.
Three decades ago, there were eight countries (not including the US) that possessed ballistic missiles. Today, there are 25. By my count, 15 of them are unfriendly, unstable or uncertain about their relationship to the US. With their twin terror programs that seek to match rockets with nukes, North Korea and Iran fall into that first category. (While their leaders may be unstable, their regimes are anything but: One has held power for almost six decades, the other for almost three.)
Over the past three weeks, North Korea has been methodically preparing to test-fire a missile known as the Taepodong 2 (or TD-2), with a range of perhaps 2,600 miles. That's good enough to hit parts of Alaska. In fact, by the time you read this, the launch may have already occurred.
Carried out in plain view of US satellites and other reconnaissance assets, preparations for North Korea's first rocket test since 1998 have drawn sharp warnings from the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The New York Times reports that US officials have even taken the "highly unusual" step of phoning North Korean diplomats at the UN to underscore Washington's sincerity. In addition, US and Japanese forces have reportedly redeployed reconnaissance aircraft, Aegis warships and radar-jamming warplanes.
It makes no sense for Pyongyang to be provocative, even bellicose, at this moment; but when was the last time the North Korean regime made sense? Trying to divine Kim Jong-Il's thoughts, some say he is rattling his missiles because he's tired of Iran getting all of the West's attention. Whether or not he fires off the TD-2, the US and its allies should disabuse him of the notion that his regime is off the radar screen. If he wants attention, the allies should give it to him. One way to do just that is for Japan to go through with plans to bring North Korea before the UN Security Council. If ever there was a threat to peace, it is Kim Jong-Il's regime.
Speaking of threats to peace, Iran's missile program is marching forward. The Claremont Institute reports that "Iran has conducted four missile tests since the beginning of 2006," including tests of a modified intermediate-range ballistic missile known as the Shahab-3 and the longer-range Shahab-4. The former brings US allies and assets (and troops) in Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan into range. The latter could strike targets as far away as Europe (approximately 1,250 miles).
Finally, amid all the bad news and good news that is propelling IMD, missile-defense center at Vandenberg AFB was re-christened this spring. It's now called the Ronald W. Reagan Missile Defense Site -- a fitting name for one of the nation's first anti-missile bases. After all, if Vandenberg's interceptors are ever called to duty, they will be ready thanks to Reagan's farsighted vision.
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