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What you need to know about missile defense: we're not there yet

By Kim Holmes - posted Thursday, 9 July 2009

In 33 minutes or less, life as we know it in America could end. That's how long it would take for an enemy ballistic missile launched from the other side of the world to hit the United States. If it carried and detonated a nuclear weapon high over the center of the country, the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would literally fry the nation's electrical grid and all of the circuitry that powers our homes, businesses, hospitals, phones, cars, planes, traffic lights, ATMs, water supplies, and anything else not "hardened" against such attacks. The EMP Commission chairman has testified that, within just one year of such an attack, 70 percent to 90 percent of Americans would be dead from starvation and disease.

This is not science fiction. We know the devastating impact of a direct nuclear attack. We know the dire results from an EMP, thanks to U.S. and Soviet nuclear tests in the 1960s. Yet Washington policymakers still bicker over the need for defences that make such weapons pointless. The Obama Administration has put on hold agreements that the U.S. signed with the Czech Republic and Poland to deploy missile defences for Europe. The President is cutting missile defence spending by over $1 billion even as he plans to spend a similar amount just to get "clunkers" off the road. He has decided not to deploy all of the ground-based interceptors already funded and to cancel programs that could enable us to destroy missiles very shortly after launch.

All of this makes no sense at the same time that North Korea is testing nuclear weapons and short- and long-range ballistic missiles to deliver them and when Iran may be just one year away from producing its first nuclear weapon. Should these regimes succeed in gaining the capabilities they seek before we have deployed adequate missile defences, they could hold America and the free world hostage merely by threatening an attack.


Washington's reluctance also makes little sense because Americans overwhelmingly support missile defence. The problem is that too many of us still think we already have all we need. We don't. Yes, we have made tremendous progress technologically in the past eight years, but there are portions of the United States that cannot be defended today against all threats.

Americans need to understand what defences we have and what we still need. These answers to common questions aim to provide the basic facts. For additional information and arguments, please visit and our missile defence reader at

Question: Don't we already have all the missile defences we need?

No. The truth is that the United States military today cannot protect all of our citizens or all of our territory--or, for that matter, all of our troops, allies, and friends abroad--from the range of possible ballistic missile attacks. Despite recent progress and technological advances, we do not yet have what we need. We probably could shoot down ten or soballistic missiles launched from North Korea, or from Iran should it gain long-range capabilities, but not if they coordinated an attack. And we have no protection from Russia's or China's ballistic missiles or any short-range or Scud missiles launched from ships off our coast.

To shoot down ballistic missiles, especially shortly after launch to prevent the greatest loss of life and property, we need an array of defensive interceptors and radar systems on land, at sea, and in space. The Missile defence Agency calls this an "integrated ballistic missile defence system."

Currently, we have 26 ground-based interceptors (GBIs) stationed in Alaska and California to defend against long-range missile attacks.The Missile defence Agency expects to have 28 in place by the end of 2009. Regrettably, the President's budget eliminates plans to deploy 44 GBIs by 2011, which would enable us to defend against even more missiles and warheads. The U.S. Navy has equipped 21 Aegis warships with sea-based interceptors and long-range surveillance and tracking systems; many are stationed in the Pacific and the Sea of Japan. Their interceptors can take out short- and medium-range missiles in mid-flight. Equipping additional Aegis cruisers will enable us to patrol America's coasts as well.


Supporting all of our defences are long-range or transportable radar systems located in California, the United Kingdom, Greenland, and Japan; an upgraded radar in the Aleutian Islands; and one that is being deployed in Israel. Because Iran's missiles can now reach portions of Europe and because of our treaty obligation to our allies there, we signed agreements in 2008 to station additional radar and interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland, but the Obama Administration has put these agreements on hold.

Obama's missile defence cuts also put promising boost-phase systems such as the Airborne Laser (ABL) on hold. Mounted on modified Boeing 747s, ABLs would enable us to knock down long-range missiles soon after launch, before the warheads could be deployed. Boost-phase defences like this are precisely what we need to defend against nuclear-armed missiles.

Another defensive system falling by the budget wayside is the Multiple Kill Vehicle that could destroy multiple incoming warheads and decoys. It isn't fully developed yet, but there aren't any major issues standing in its way. The same can be said for the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (SSTS) sensor program that would help our defenders distinguish between real warheads and decoys in space that are meant to overwhelm our missile defences.

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This article was first published on 30 June, by The Heritage Foundation as "What you need to know about missile defense: we're not there yet". It was co-authored with James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., Peter Brookes and Baker Spring

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About the Author

Kim R Holmes is Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies. A former assistant secretary of state for international organizations, Kim R. Holmes, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation and author of Liberty's Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century.

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