26 June 2013
On March 15, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the deployment of an additional 14 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, “to stay ahead of the long-range ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea and Iran.” In fact, this is only the latest in a series of actions taken by nations across the globe to counter missile threats to their territory and populations.
While under attack by rockets launched from Gaza, Israel deployed the Iron Dome system to protect its population — providing Israeli leaders the time necessary to avoid a ground war and achieve a cease-fire. Likewise, Turkish leaders may decide to avoid pre-emptive strikes by requesting Patriot batteries from NATO to protect against Syrian ballistic missiles. Most recently, Japan, South Korea and the United States have activated ground and sea-based missile defense systems in response to bellicose threats and actions by North Korea.
The common thread in all these actions is the deployment of missile defense to protect populations, thereby giving leaders more options, time and space in which to defuse a potential armed conflict. As former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said at the time, “Iron Dome performed remarkably well during the recent escalation,” adding: “Iron Dome does not start wars, it helps prevent wars.” Our interceptors are deployed now in limited numbers and are able to intercept and destroy incoming missiles as tests have repeatedly proved.
We are pleased that the administration now supports the additional 14 GBIs intended for Fort Greely. It signals a recognition by the administration that, like Iron Dome and other recent deployments, our nation’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system is critical for the defense of the homeland and provides the president additional flexibility to deal with threats to the United States and its vital interests. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the top military officer charged with protecting the homeland, put it well when he observed “no homeland task is more important than protecting the United States from a limited [intercontinental ballistic missile] ICBM attack. … We must not allow regional actors, such as North Korea, to hold U.S. policy hostage by making our citizens vulnerable to a nuclear ICBM attack.”
The additional interceptors in Alaska are part of a series of steps the administration will take to improve our homeland missile defenses systems, which must continue to stay ahead of the long-range missile threat. Steady improvement to the ground-based interceptor will be necessary to ensure it can counter with more sophisticated threats over time.
Likewise, as directed by Congress, the Department of Defense must continue to hedge against future threats by maintaining the ability to expand the existing missile fields at Fort Greely and by developing plans to deploy interceptors at an additional location in the United States.
Placing at risk the recent missile defense announcement, however, are plans by the administration to reduce funding for the Missile Defense Agency over the next five years. In fact, the five-year spending plan for MDA for fiscal years 2014-2018 is almost $2 billion less than what the president proposed previously. While we maintain great confidence in MDA’s leadership, this significant decline in funding will jeopardize the president’s commitment to bolster homeland missile defense protection while also maintaining ongoing programs to develop and deploy missile defenses for our deployed forces and allies.
As a result, modernization of the GMD system could be curtailed, delayed or drawn out beyond threat timelines, and costs will go up. One painful example is the plan by MDA to procure only two ground-based interceptors per year, thereby increasing the cost of each new interceptor by some $20 million. Recognizing this risk, we supported congressional action that allocated additional funds in 2009 to keep GBI production on track.
Although the GMD program is only a very small part of defense costs, history teaches us that adequate investment upfront saves money in the long term and is necessary to maintain the readiness of this invaluable system. We’ve learned in recent years that missile threats can arise faster than anticipated. A steady plan to keep ahead of the threats is essential.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska); Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)