Issues & Insights

Modernized Missile Defense Is Vital To Counter Iran, North Korea Threats

Photo: U.S. Army

The modern core of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative is called Ground-based Midcourse Defense technology (GMD). That technology can engage and destroy intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles in space to protect America’s homeland.

It relies on ground-based interceptor (GBI) rockets to deploy exoatmospheric kill vehicles (EKV) into the path of incoming nuclear warheads. Those EKVs use globally deployed sensors and sensor/propulsion technology onboard to guide the vehicle to use kinetic energy from a direct hit to destroy the incoming target vehicle. That has been proven to work to stop incoming missiles in recent tests.

The Pentagon was planning to modernize this system by replacing the old EKVs with new redesigned kill vehicles (RKVs), specifically intended to defend against possible ballistic missile attacks from North Korea and Iran. But in May this year, the Pentagon reported a two-year delay in the RKV’s development and announced a pause in the modernization as a result.

Now Michael Griffin, undersecretary of Defense for research and engineering, has issued a stop-work order to Boeing on further development of the new, more modern RKV “due to technical design problems.” Raytheon is the actual developer of the RKV, serving as a subcontractor to Boeing.

The RKV was meant to replace the EKVs on all current and future GMD interceptor rockets, a total of 64 ultimately. Currently, there are 44 GBIs at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with plans to add 22 additional missile silos at Fort Greely to support 20 more GBIs.

Under the new Defense Department budget, the RKV is now planned for its first intercept test in fiscal 2023. The plan is now to deploy the RKV on GBI missiles in 2025 at the soonest.

Meanwhile, the old EKV is still working, now better than ever, given the most recent tests. The Missile Defense Agency needs to complete its modernization with the new RKV before missile defense is dangerously degraded.

Nuclear attack is the greatest military threat to the security of the United States. A single attack on a major American city by a one-megaton nuclear warhead would kill or maim more than a million Americans, much worse than Pearl Harbor or 9/11.

A nuclear attack on several cities could collapse the American economy, with its current high level of employment, its rising wages, economic growth and prosperity. Who is going to invest in an America under nuclear attack?

But old fashioned deterrence can still prevent that. It can be counted on to keep the peace with Russia and China, America’s major nuclear rivals.

Rogue nations, however, with more ideologically blinkered leadership less careful about the survival of their own countries, such as Iran and North Korea, are a different matter. Keeping the peace with them will require keeping Ground-based Midcourse Missile Defense functional until America leaps ahead with more dominant technologies.

The Pentagon is pursuing the top secret next-generation interceptor. This may include robust homeland defense, and might cover modernization of Ground-based Midcourse Defense.

Other promising technologies that would vindicate Reagan’s original vision for getting past mutual assured destruction with missile defense are Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system. Then there is the vision for laser technology that could make nuclear missiles obsolete.

President Donald Trump is committed to that technologically dominant course. Keeping the country safe with missile defense, and protecting the American people from mutual assured destruction, as Reagan originally envisioned — that is the only way to complete his work of making America great again. Peace through strength combined with his record booming economy would be the complete package.

Peter Ferrara is the Dunn liberty fellow in Economics at the King’s College in New York and a senior fellow at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served on the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Ronald Reagan and as associate deputy attorney General of the United States under Attorney General Bill Barr and President George H.W. Bush.


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Issues & Insights is a new site formed by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

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