WASHINGTON - The United States has quietly taken on the huge task of trying to organize regional ballistic missile defense networks, not only among NATO countries, but also in East Asia and the Middle East.
The United States is “leading from in front” on meeting possible future missile threats from North Korea and Iran, whether to itself, its allies or U.S. troops stationed abroad.
The task in some areas involves trying to get old enemies, such as Japan and South Korea, to work together. Or harder still, seeing whether Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states will join in a common defense system.
It was just over 30 years ago that President Ronald Reagan unveiled his unachievable “Star Wars” program to protect against a surprise attack of thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads.
Today, there remains an annual U.S. missile defense program that costs $8 billion or more and maintains a minimal antiballistic missile system to protect the homeland. It also works on developing new ABM technology and can confront perhaps dozens of intermediate and long-range missiles.
On March 15, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the future deployment of 14 additional ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, where 30 are already deployed. Along with four other ground-based interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, that represents the entire U.S.-based force arrayed against intercontinental ballistic missiles. The United States has early warning radars around the globe and in space, and a command-and-control architecture that links all elements of the system.
What is the United States doing in the rest of the world? The best summary is in the transcript of a session on “The United States and Global Missile Defense,” held by the bipartisan Atlantic Council on March 12.
James Miller, undersecretary of defense for policy, said America’s concern about North Korea was its “potential ICBM capability . . . compounded by the regime’s focus on developing nuclear weapons.” He described Iran’s “continued efforts to develop nuclear capabilities and long-range ballistic missiles . . . (as) not as advanced as those of North Korea.”
North Korea and Iran also have short-range missiles that constitute regional threats.
Retired Gen. Walter Sharp, former head of the U.S. and Republic of Korea Combined Command, said North Korea has more than 800 missiles — all of which could hit South Korea. Most could hit Japan, some the United States, Australia and other countries.
“The United States forward-deploys Patriot Advanced Capability 3, or PAC 3, batteries in South Korea to defend U.S. and South Korean forces,” Miller noted, adding that Seoul is enhancing its own program.
South Korea is building a complex system with ground- and sea-based interceptors, radars and command-and-control systems.
Miller also said Japan “has acquired its own layered missile defense system, which includes Aegis ballistic missile defense-equipped ships with SM 3, Standard Missile 3 interceptors.” Japan also has PAC 3 units, early warning radars and sophisticated command-and-control systems.
Sharp said intelligence-sharing and cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo is critical. However, he added, “The Republic of Korea needs to understand it is to their detriment that there’s not an intelligence-sharing relationship between South Korea and Japan.”
Tehran has the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile and a modified version with a claimed range of about 1,900 km.
Retired Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, a former commander of U.S. naval forces in the gulf and now with Textron Systems, said, “From the threat point of view, it means that a coastal-launched short-range ballistic missile from Iran can range Riyadh (Saudi Arabia).”
Countries in the area have responded.
“Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, (the United Arab Emirates) have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to Patriot batteries and (are) moving to” the PAC 3 system, Matthew Spence, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy, said.
With U.S. cooperation, Israel has developed the Iron Dome anti-rocket system and David’s Sling and Arrow 3 antimissile systems. In addition, since the 1991 Persian Gulf War Israel has had the U.S. Patriot antimissile system. The United States also has placed an X-band radar in the Negev Desert to provide better coverage of Iran.
The U.S. plan to meet the Iranian threat to Europe is well known. It has been integrated into the NATO missile defense program but has individual elements. For example, Miller said NATO’s layered theater ballistic missile defense has reached an interim operating capability and will evolve toward full capability between 2018 and 2020.
In 2015, the United States is set to establish the Aegis Ashore interceptors in Romania and more in Poland in 2018, with four missile defense Aegis ships moving to Rota, Spain.
With the United States leading all this missile defense activity, Cosgriff raised a concern worth considering: “the integration of different systems into a coherent missile defense architecture that also involves different countries.”
Those countries “really don’t have a culture of deep military collaboration; in fact, in some instances just the opposite.”
Cosgriff rightfully warned: “This is going to take time. And the indispensable reality of the current approach is that the United States of America is the integrating agent of all these countries.”