WASHINGTON, D.C. — The end of the Cold War made effective missile defense possible, Ashton Carter, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said here March 22.
Carter spoke at the 8th Annual U.S. Missile Defense Conference at the Ronald Reagan Building. The site of the conference is significant as Reagan was the first U.S. president in a generation to push for an effective missile defense system.
Reagan, who served from 1981 to 1989, wanted to counter the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union. He proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative – also known as “Star Wars” – to counter thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles.
The “Star Wars” concept was derided by many who thought the initiative would undermine the strategy of mutually assured destruction, Carter said. The idea was that missile defense would give a false sense of assurance that one side or the other could survive a nuclear exchange and would be more apt to launch a strike against the other.
Another drawback, Carter said, was that most systems were designed to destroy nuclear warheads by exploding a warhead near it.
The need for missile defense was illustrated during the Gulf War, when Iraq launched SCUD missiles at allied forces massing in Saudi Arabia and at Israel. U.S. Patriot missile batteries countered the threat with some success, and U.S. aircraft launched “SCUD hunts” in the western Iraqi desert. Still, missiles did strike and one hit a warehouse being used as a barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. It killed 28 American soldiers and wounded another 110.
Missile defense remained a contentious issue -- with European critics being among the harshest -- until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
With the demise of what Reagan called “the Evil Empire” and growing ties between Russia and the United States, the threat changed. Today, the missile threat to the United States emanates from rogue states or a mistaken launch. Missile defense systems could not hope to counter a massive strike with thousands of warheads, but it could handle a limited attack, Carter said.
In the Clinton administration, missile defense research and development moved forward. Scientists looked at the many phases of missile defense from boost-phase, to mid-course, to terminal systems. The investments of the 1980s and 1990s paid off with quantum leaps in radars and system architectures, Carter said. It became possible for a missile to be so accurate as to hit an incoming warhead with the missile – akin to hitting a bullet with another bullet, Carter said.
Testing continued through the Clinton administration, and it was sufficiently mature that the Bush administration decided to establish missile defense systems to protect the homeland. After assessing the threat, NATO also agreed to field missile defense.
Now missile defense is a cornerstone of American defense, Carter said. U.S. officials can assess the threat at various places and plug in capabilities to negate that threat. Aegis-class ships, SM-3 missiles, the whole mid-course system, space-based sensors, portable radars, Patriot-3 missile systems now are in the quiver and can be used.
Today, the work is in managing the capability, Carter said. While getting the best value for taxpayers has always been a goal, he said, there are enough systems now that managing them allows for more potential savings.
“We’re trying to manage the missile defense programs responsibly,” Carter said. “Testing has always been an issue: How do you know they work? So, we try to give rigorous answers based on tests to answer that question.”
The department now has an integrated master test plan that encompasses $1.8 billion in annual spending. “We’re trying to get the same fidelity of test information at less expense,” Carter said.
And, now that the United States has missile defenses as part of its military force structure, Carter said, the question arises about how much missile defense capability does the nation need?
“What is the relationship between force structure and deployed forces?” Carter asked. “Where should they deploy? Which [combatant commands] get which assets? How do we budget for this new ingredient of the force structure?
“Finally,” he continued, “what’s the relationship between missile defense, on the one hand, and air defenses, cruise missile defenses, space situational awareness and other situations that share some of the same technologies and some of the same assets?”