As Kim Jong-un’s cavalcade of menace has proceeded across the 2017 calendar, revealing a North Korean arsenal that now includes a hydrogen bomb and missiles capable of reaching New York City and Washington, D.C., America’s strategic posture has been old and familiar (if now more colorfully put)—deterrence (“fire and fury”), sanctions, entreaties to China, and even the prospect of a diplomatic sit-down with the renegade regime.
Missing, or, at least, relegated to the margins, is any clear articulation of the role of American missile defense. “I don’t hear enough about it, and this baffles me,” says Jon Kyl, the former Arizona senator who is now a Washington think-tanker and a member of the congressionally mandated Commission on Defense Strategy. “It seems so obvious that the first thing you have to do with North Korea is shore up your ability to ensure that they can’t damage us or our allies. Once you’ve done that, then you’ve got a lot more flexibility to do whatever you’re going to do—whether it’s with more sanctions or whatever.”
Kyl, a freshman congressman during Ronald Reagan’s presidency and then a three-term senator, has long been one of Washington’s most forceful advocates of missile defense. Given today’s existential threat posed by North Korea, Kyl can’t understand why missile defense isn’t central to every defense policy conversation. “I think part of the answer is that people really do think that somehow or other we’ve got this covered,” he says. “And, you know, we don’t.”
That is a jarring assertion from one of Washington’s top defense thinkers. Thirty-four years after Reagan undertook to build a shield to protect the United States from enemy missiles, with North Korea now routinely sailing them over Japan, it is reasonable to ask what exactly the American missile-defense system is capable of doing. Can our missile defenses block a nuclear warhead aimed at the United States? Can it protect Japan and South Korea or the American territory of Guam? Could it have shot down any of the 15 (so far) test missiles that North Korea has launched this year?
SCUDs, THAAD, and Aegis
America’s missile-defense program is not really one single system but four. One component is the Patriot missile, descendant of the SCUD-hunting rockets deployed, with mixed success, in the 1991 Gulf war. The newer, far more effective Patriot, called the PAC-3, is a low-altitude weapon deployed in South Korea and in several other ally nations. The ground-based Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, and the sea-based Aegis defense system are both considered dependable weapons against short- and medium-range missiles. Experts believe they can reliably, if not infallibly, protect South Korea, Japan, and Guam against a North Korean attack. Neither system has scored a kill against one of Kim’s test missiles, and they are not likely to be tried in such a manner, mostly because they are oriented toward protecting populations, and the North Korean test missiles have been shot into the sea. As Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, puts it, “We deploy our defenses to protect the U.S. and its allies, not fish.”
The final piece of the missile-defense program, and the only one aimed at protecting the American homeland, is the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, an array of 30 interceptors situated in Alaska and California (to be increased to 44 by the end of this year), which are designed to take out enemy missiles as they cruise in space toward the United States. The system is complex, and the ground-based interceptors have a mixed record. The newest interceptor had a successful test in May, a so-called “bullet-to-bullet” kill of an ICBM-class missile. This was a remarkable achievement, but it was also the system’s only such intercept of an intercontinental ballistic-class missile.
This summer, Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, head of the Missile Defense Agency, said, “We believe that the currently deployed ballistic missile defense system can meet today’s threat.” Defense Secretary James Mattis, testifying before Congress in June, said that the current system is good enough to “buy us some time.”
Our missile-defense system is hardly an impenetrable shield, and it is not nearly as robust as it could have become by now. When Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the nation in a televised speech in 1983, he said that achieving a viable anti-ballistic missile system would be a “formidable technical task” and warned that “[t]here will be failures and setbacks” along with the breakthroughs. The science of missile defense has, indeed, been hard, but the politics have been even harder.
Liberal opposition to missile defense is nearly as old as the concept. The reigning strategic doctrine of the Cold War was Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD—the notion that stability was purchased by each side’s knowledge that a nuclear strike would be met by devastating retaliation, with annihilation the result for both sides. By this reasoning, a missile-defense system was inherently provocative, because it would undermine the other side’s confidence in its ability to retaliate, thus encouraging a preemptive first strike. Even so, ballistic missile-defense systems were proposed in the 1950s and 1960s and fiercely disputed along sharply ideological lines. This politicization was partly because one of the early, and most forceful, advocates of missile defense was Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, who’d come to believe that it was far preferable to “shoot at enemy missiles than to suffer attack and then have to shoot at people in return.” Years earlier, Teller had testified against J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist and Manhattan Project principal accused of Communist sympathies. For many on the left, support for something Teller advocated amounted to an endorsement of McCarthyism.
Teller contributed to the development of an early missile-defense system called Safeguard, which envisioned interceptors dispersed across the country, able to destroy enemy missiles with a small nuclear explosion in space. When President Nixon announced in 1969 his intention to deploy Safeguard, he was fiercely opposed by congressional liberals, led by Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy. It won authorization in the Senate by a single vote—the tiebreaker cast by Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Nixon later said that he’d pushed the anti-ballistic missile system because the Soviets had one, and at the least, it could serve as a bargaining chip in arms negotiations. That deal came with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and a follow-on amendment, which effectively enshrined MAD as inviolable writ, allowing each side one anti-missile site, limited to 100 interceptors. The Soviets already had a site near Moscow, and the United States located Safeguard in Langdon, North Dakota. It became fully operational in the autumn of 1975. But politics intervened. Nixon had been chased out of office by Watergate, and a scandal-weary electorate had stacked Congress with hyper-partisan Democrats. Forty-eight days after it became operational, the $5.7 billion Safeguard system was shut down by Congress. The Soviets, meanwhile, kept their missile-defense system near Moscow; its successor continues to be maintained by Russia today.
Star Wars Is Born
So things stood until that summer day in 1979 when Ronald Reagan visited Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, then the home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The facility was an early-warning tracking installation buried under 2,000 feet of granite, with a command center several stories high. As Reagan would tell the story, he stood in the center, with its vast walls of monitors and sensors overlaid by a huge map of the United States, and heard how we could track a Soviet missile from the launchpad, watch its trajectory through space, and then see it reenter the atmosphere en route to its target on American soil.
“What can you do to stop it?” Reagan asked NORAD’s commander, General James Hill.
“Nothing,” Hill replied.
That paradox animated Reagan’s vision for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which he sold to the public as a matter of common sense and moral imperative. “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” he asked in his 1983 speech. “Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability?”
Reagan’s program was savagely attacked by his political opponents, including Ted Kennedy, who dubbed it a “reckless Star Wars scheme’’—a cue that the press eagerly took.
As Reagan had said it would, the SDI program had its failures as well as successes—not least being its role in hastening the demise of the Soviet Union. There were remarkable technical advances, including an imaginative system of thousands of small, autonomous space-based interceptors designed to detect and destroy enemy missiles on their own, thus avoiding the risk of being rendered useless if cut off from command and control. The system, named Brilliant Pebbles, was relatively cheap and carried huge strategic implications. It became the centerpiece of the SDI program, and by 1992 it had passed through its first six tests. One of its innovators, Greg Canavan, guessed that Brilliant Pebbles was two years away from deployment when, as he later put it, “the scaffolding just dropped out.”
Bill Clinton had campaigned against SDI in his run for the presidency, and soon after his inauguration, his Defense secretary, Les Aspin, declared the administration’s determination to “take the stars out of Star Wars,” which it unhesitatingly did. SDI was killed in Clinton’s first 100 days.
From that moment until this, the fortunes of missile defense have directly reflected the political cycle, waxing when Republicans are in ascent, waning when Democrats hold sway.
Kim’s Calling Card
Republicans made missile defense part of their Contract with America in the nationalized 1994 midterm elections that made Newt Gingrich speaker of the House, and the next year, Congress passed legislation mandating a national anti-missile system. Clinton vetoed it. Then, in August 1998, North Korea, led at the time by Kim Jong-il, the current dictator’s father, launched a Taepodong-1 missile. It was the regime’s first ballistic missile, a wakeup call to the world, and Congress again passed a missile-defense mandate. By then, Clinton was on trial in the Senate on impeachment charges, and he signed the legislation, mandating a national missile-defense system but delaying deployment until his successor took office.
As it happened, George W. Bush had, during his campaign, articulated what was to become American policy for the next eight years. “America must build effective missile defenses based on the best available options at the earliest possible date,” he’d said. “Our missile defense must be designed to protect all 50 states and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas from missile attacks by rogue nations or accidental launches.” Bush’s Pentagon pursued a global, multilayered system, testing an array of land-, sea-, air-, and space-based weapons. Among the systems funded was an Airborne Laser, designed to take out an enemy missile in its very earliest moments after launch. Such a “boost-phase” weapon is the holy grail of missile-defense scientists because at that early stage, an enemy rocket is a fat, slow target positioned over enemy territory. In 2004, Bush began deploying the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system in Alaska and California, which is now the homeland’s only defense against missiles, and negotiated deals with the Czech Republic and Poland to install interceptors meant to protect Europe from Iranian missiles.
Then came another turn of the political wheel. Barack Obama began to dismantle the Bush missile-defense system almost as soon as he took office. He canceled the Airborne Laser and other “boost-phase” systems, reduced the number of interceptors in the homeland defense system, and cut the overall missile-defense budget significantly. In a nod to Russia, with whom Obama wished to “reset” relations, he canceled the systems planned for Poland and the Czech Republic, promising that they’d be replaced by “stronger, smarter, and swifter defense.” Obama’s “stronger, smarter” system—which would have fielded an interceptor, the SM-3 IIB, to which Russia particularly objected—never materialized. In 2013, two years after Obama’d said it would be deployed, the program was canceled.
By then, there was new mischief from North Korea, now being led by Kim Jong-un, that obliged Obama to re-think his reluctance on missile defense, just as it had with Clinton. The latest Kim had not only successfully debuted a three-stage rocket and conducted new tests with nuclear technology, he’d gone on a rhetorical gambol that established his standing as a uniquely weird and dangerous figure—unilaterally renouncing the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and proclaiming North Korea’s right to a preemptive nuclear strike. Obama decided to increase the number of interceptors protecting the homeland from 30 to 44—which had been the Bush plan before Obama whittled it down.
“In the Obama years, some extraordinary damage was done,” Kyl notes. “Efforts to build out the GMD system and also to create some really new innovative and much more powerful systems with our Aegis, and Patriot, and THAAD were all doused by the Obama administration.”
Dan Sullivan was a second-year pre-med student at Harvard when he cast his first presidential vote, for Ronald Reagan in 1984. A Crimson poll at the time showed that the Republican incumbent only drew 27 percent support from the student body, and Sullivan and his friends used to joke that they personally knew every student who’d voted for the Gipper. Sullivan, who’d attended a military prep school, admired Reagan’s common-sense style and, especially, his buildup of the hollowed-out post-Vietnam military. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, by then commonly known as “Star Wars,” just made sense to young Dan Sullivan.
Over the course of the next 33 years, Sullivan graduated from Harvard, received degrees from Georgetown, enlisted in the Marines (doing four tours of active duty), married, moved to Alaska, had three kids, and got into elective politics. And when he came to Washington as Alaska’s junior senator in 2015, he found that the debate over missile defense hadn’t really changed much since his undergraduate days.
“You know, the critics, they all say, ‘Oh, this is too expensive, it’s not fully tested, let’s just use the mutual assured destruction doctrine with Kim Jong-un as he gets these nukes, the way we’ve done it with Russia and China,’ ” he tells me.
Indeed, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, argued in August, “History shows that we can, if we must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea—the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War.”
But Sullivan believes one factor should change the politics of missile defense—the unknowable mind of Kim Jong-un. “Mutual assured destruction assumes a rational actor at the other end of the red button,” he says. “And I don’t think, given his activities, that’s a risk we want to take—to assume that he’s a rational actor.”
More than a year ago, Sullivan began to solicit the counsel of key defense figures on how to reinvigorate the missile-defense program. Advice from such experts as General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, and Vice Admiral James Syring, then the director of the Missile Defense Agency, provided Sullivan with the substance he needed for a missile-defense bill.
The Alaska senator recruited allies from both parties for his effort, and his Advancing America’s Missile Defense Act had more than two-dozen cosponsors, several of them Democrats. The legislation proposed the addition of another 28 interceptors to the 44 that will be in place by the end of the year, a quickened pace for anti-missile testing, and, most important, would open the door to a space-based sensor system that could integrate the various ground- and sea-based systems into one.
The essence of Sullivan’s bill became a key element of the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act, the annual congressional exercise in directing defense programs, which passed earlier this month. A similar measure passed the House, and the two bills will soon be in conference.
It isn’t exactly Star Wars or Missile Shield, but Sullivan’s effort is seen by missile-defense advocates as an important start. “I’m hopeful that this signals a recognition that we’ve got to turn the scientists loose,” says Kyl, “and get back to innovating. We need new improvements to these weapons that can make them very effective against an Iranian or North Korean threat and create, at least, the potential for dealing with an even more robust threat.”
Trump Jumps In
One of the Democratic cosponsors of Sullivan’s legislation was Gary Peters, a liberal from Michigan. “The United States faces an evolving number of security threats—from North Korea’s provocative missile tests designed to inflame global tensions to Iran’s ballistic missile tests in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution,” Peters said in May. “It is critical that America take proactive steps to bolster our missile-defense systems so we are prepared in the event of a missile attack directed at our homeland.”
It was the sort of thing that not so long ago only a Republican would have uttered. And Republicans have left space open for Democrats on the issue of missile defense. Not only had stalwarts like Kyl retired, but for the first time in a generation, the election of a Republican president didn’t necessarily mean a commitment to a robust missile-defense system.
The issue had scarcely been mentioned during the 2016 campaign, although a page that went up on the White House website on Inauguration Day called for a more robust system, and Defense secretary James Mattis ordered a Pentagon review of missile defense in the spring—to be completed by the end of the year. The Trump budget cut missile-defense spending by $300 million, and the White House mildly criticized the Sullivan proposal, urging Congress to wait for the Pentagon’s review before making any decisions.
But Trump himself, who’d not seemed particularly interested in, or even aware of, his administration’s missile-defense policy, awakened to the issue this summer. Speaking to reporters at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club two weeks after North Korea’s second ICBM test, Trump said, “We are going to be increasing our budget by many billions of dollars because of North Korea and other reasons having to do with the anti-missile.”
“As you know, we reduced it by 5 percent, but I’ve decided I don’t want that,” Trump continued. “We are going to be increasing the anti-missiles by a substantial amount of billions of dollars.”
If it wasn’t Reagan’s 1983 speech, Trump was nonetheless on board with missile defense. Sullivan says he believes a consensus is building and that this time, it may survive the next political cycle.
“Look, people are hearing about this in town halls, not just in Alaska and Hawaii, but in places like Seattle,” he says. “If you ask the average American should we be spending billions more to make sure we have an insurance policy that your city is protected, I think the answer from almost everybody is yes.”
Peter J. Boyer is national correspondent at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.