North Korea is preparing to test a long-range missile and the Defense Department believes that the nation may soon be capable of building a nuclear-armed missile.
Meanwhile, Iran remains a serious threat — the nation already has missile capability, it’s working to develop inter-continental missiles (ICBMs), and it’s committed to developing nuclear weapons.
There is also the very real threat of terrorists gaining these capabilities — and radicals around the globe have shown a willingness to use whatever technology is available.
These threats are reminders of why the United States has invested decades of research into developing missile defense systems. While missile defense may have been a politically divisive issue when it was first proposed by President Reagan thirty years ago, the need for such capability is no longer in doubt.
Political and military leaders know the important role that missile defense systems play in protecting the United States and its allies from terrorist threats and rogue nations like North Korea and Iran. They also agree that improving those systems to meet new and evolving threats is a national security priority
When President Ronald Reagan first announced the concept of missile defense in 1983, he envisioned a system that could intercept incoming missiles from the Soviet Union. Until then, the United States relied on Mutual Assured Destruction — or MAD — as the only deterrent.
The move to missile defense made sense, both morally and practically. As President Reagan said, “I’ve become more and more deeply convinced that the human spirit must be capable of rising above dealing with other nations and human beings by threatening their existence.”
Today, it makes even more sense — MAD has limited applicability to address the threats posed by rogue nations and terrorists.
Thirty years ago, Reagan’s vision was dismissed out of hand — called “Star Wars” — and was considered unrealistic. President Reagan knew that the technological challenges would be enormous, but he never doubted that the United States could succeed. He challenged the nation to consider whether the world would be better off “if people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation,” but rather on our ability to “intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our soil or that of our allies.”
Thanks to bipartisan political support and thirty years of effort from scientists, engineers, military, and civilian personnel, the skeptics have been proven wrong. Missile defense interceptors are successfully destroying incoming missiles in both test and real-world situations. Most are familiar with the Patriot Air Defense Missile System, but there’s also Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System, and Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense.
The Pentagon recently deployed the THAAD system to Guam to defend our military bases in the Pacific from North Korean threats, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently announced plans to deploy 14 more ground-based interceptors to California and Alaska.
The United States isn’t the only country that has recognized the necessity of strong missile defense. Friends and allies, including Israel, Japan, South Korea and the UAE, have come to rely on these systems. Several others, including Poland and Turkey, are in the process of assessing their missile defense options.
The global consensus has shifted so far in favor of missile defense that the NATO alliance has adopted territorial missile defense as an operational priority. This commitment could enable countries to pool their expertise and resources, allowing some smaller nations to acquire and use missile defense systems that would otherwise be unaffordable if pursued independently.
Thirty years ago, President Reagan initiated “a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.” He noted that “Our only purpose – one all people share — is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.”
We have made much progress toward that end. It is indisputable that a strong, practical missile defense system will be needed in the coming years to protect the United States, our friends and allies. It is not a political or diplomatic bargaining chip. Neither is it a budgetary luxury. It’s a strategic necessity.
But despite thirty years of progress and achievement, we cannot stop our support of missile defense until we achieve the “ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by nuclear missiles.”
C. Dean McGrath, Jr. was an Associate Counsel to President Reagan (1986-1989) He is an attorney with McGrath & Associates and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University. He is a graduate of Duke University, the University of Nebraska College of Law, and the National War College.