Several decades ago, President Ronald Reagan advocated building an intercontinental missile defense system that would shield the United States from a first-strike missile attack by an enemy. Likened to shooting down a bullet with another bullet, the Strategic Defense Initiative would defend the U.S. homeland by firing an intercepting missile that would safely disable an adversary missile in the sky. Reagan wanted this option because he viewed the then-vogue mutually assured destruction theory as a dual suicide pact. The media mocked his idea and dubbed the program “Star Wars.”
Last month, North Korea test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles. As reports circulated that Pyongyang could deploy an ICBM with a miniaturized nuclear warhead atop the missile, and President Donald Trump promised that the U.S. would unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea does not stand down, Reagan’s vision looks prescient. The need for a missile defense system has never been greater.
Indeed, as North Korea warns it will carry out preemptive military strikes against the U.S., including a strike against the territory of Guam, and the U.S. demonstrates a show of force against the hermit nation by conducting joint military drills with Japan and South Korea, the Pentagon’s number one weapons supplier reports that it is fielding missile defense systems requests from countries caught in the crosshairs.
So where do things stand with our intercontinental missile defense?
After its nascent “Star Wars” beginnings, Congress authorized funding for SDI in 1984. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush shifted its priorities to theater missile defense, away from the broader original goal of the defense of North America from large-scale strikes. President Bill Clinton renamed it the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and narrowed its scale even further to regional defense. BMDO was renamed and became the current Missile Defense Agency.
In May, a ground-based interceptor launched by the American military successfully intercepted a mock ICBM fired from the Marshall Islands. “This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat,” Vice Admiral Jim Syring, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, was quoted as saying.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said that “in a broad sense, North Korea is one of the reasons why we have this capability.”
In July, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system successfully shot down a target over Alaska. THAAD is principally designed to shoot down short, medium and intermediate ballistic missiles. It uses radar to detect an incoming missile threat, and then the crew manning the system launches an “interceptor” projectile from a truck that disrupts the ICBM through kinetic energy, essentially destroying the missile via sheer speed. The Pentagon compares this to destroying a bullet with another bullet, at vastly higher speeds. What was once mocked as science fiction now exists in reality.
By the end of this year, the U.S. missile defense system will consist of 44 interceptors and be able to thwart an attack from a rogue state like North Korea.
In the midst of overheated rhetoric and doomsday headlines, this is reason to be hopeful. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis said today, the North Korean regime is “grossly overmatched” and will “lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
In part we have the foresight of Ronald Reagan to thank for that.