The U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system is a single, integrated system to protect the United States, its deployed forces, and U.S. allies and friends against growing threats posed by ballistic missiles from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. It is the policy of the United States to work with its allies to deploy defenses against existing and emerging threats from missiles of all ranges.
This is important because a ballistic missile carrying just one weapon of mass destruction payload could cause catastrophic damage to a country. The missile defense system deployed over the past four years protects the United States against long-range attack. It also integrates mobile sea-based and transportable land-based capabilities to intercept shorter-range missiles. In missile defense, geography matters.
The early warning radars in Alaska, California, and the United Kingdom and the long-range missiles based at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, are not positioned properly to defend Europe against intermediate-range and long-range ballistic missile attacks from Iran. The short-range defenses (including Patriot systems) deployed by a handful of European allies and current U.S. sea-based missile defenses cannot provide adequate defensive coverage and engage with high confidence the much faster missiles coming out of the Middle East. Iran is in an aggressive race to build on its shorter-range missiles to extend its military reach. It is also acquiring missile technologies and even whole missile systems through trade with proliferators such as North Korea. Iran has publicly announced that it is developing a space launch vehicle, which means developing the technologies and knowledge (e.g., rocket staging) for longer-range ballistic missiles.
These developments, combined with the statements by Iran's leaders (e.g., Ahmadinejad's stated goal "to wipe Israel off the face of the map" and his admonition that other nations must "bow down before the greatness of the Iranian nation and surrender") are reasons for concern about Iran's military direction. One must ask why a country such as Iran is acquiring ballistic missiles that can reach more than 1,500 kilometers, a strike range that would overfly Israel and the American bases in the region.
One possible answer is that Iran sees value in having the ability to coerce and impose Iranian policy on European leaders by holding them hostage. The power to blackmail and threaten European and U.S. leaders means that Iran might not need to fire a single missile to affect the foreign and defense policies of its enemies.
An operational missile defense system that protects European nations could counter any such move by Tehran. Preparing defenses against an emerging missile threat takes many years, which is why the Bush Administration decided to proceed with deploying 10 long-range interceptors in Poland and building a midcourse discrimination radar in the Czech Republic.
The missiles and the radar would provide redundant protection of the United States and an initial defense of Central and Northern Europe from long-range ballistic missile attack. The radar in Central Europe would supplement sensor coverage from the early warning radar in the United Kingdom, which is already integrated into the U.S. system, and other radars that might be deployed in and around the region on land and at sea. These Central European sites provide geographically ideal locations for protecting both the United States and our European allies. Allies in Southern Europe are not vulnerable to long-range missile attack from Iran, but in a crisis, they would need the shorter-range defenses offered by Patriot PAC-3s, Aegis BMD ships, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries, and other NATO missile defense systems. The United States has concluded negotiations with the Czech Republic and Poland. In April 2008, all 26 NATO nations formally endorsed the missile defense plan, agreeing with the United States that the threat from Iran is serious and that the Bush Administration's planned defense approach is the right one. The benefits of this deployment are clear.
Long-range defenses in Europe will increase the options available to U.S. leaders to defend against sophisticated threats by providing more decision time and engagement opportunities. This deployment would strengthen transatlantic security by reassuring and defending allies and friends, complementing emerging NATO plans to defeat short-range and medium-range threats, and preventing coercion and preserving U.S. and NATO freedom of action. An effective missile defense system could also dissuade rogue states from pursuing ballistic missiles in the first place and deter ballistic missile launches. Critics of the European deployments worry about the predictable negative reaction from Russia's leaders and the possibility of damage caused by debris. However, the 10 interceptors in Poland and the midcourse radar in the Czech Republic oriented toward the Middle East are incapable of intercepting the hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the thousands of warheads in the Russian arsenal.
Russian concern that the United States could turn these defensive interceptors into offensive weapons is likewise groundless. Future U.S. activities at missile defense sites in Europe will be transparent to the Russians and to host nations. Perhaps more important, this concern does not make military sense from the U.S. point of view because the U.S. already has the capability to bring offensive strike submarines or bombers into a regional conflict. The United States has also assured its allies that the launched objects' momentum will cause debris resulting from intercepts in space to continue along the missiles' original trajectories and that most of this debris will burn up when it reenters the atmosphere.
Another way to view the debris question is to compare it to Europe's experiences during World War II, when leaders found that shooting down enemy aircraft, regardless of where they crashed and the level of damage caused by the crashes, made far more sense than allowing them to survive and deliver their bombs.
One fact, however, is beyond dispute: Once a missile has been launched and its payload has acquired the target, our leaders and the leaders of Europe will have only the option of missile defense to secure the safety of the citizens of their countries. Find out more about the growing nuclear proliferation threat facing the world today. Visit 33 Minutes - Missile Defense in a New Missile Age, a new documentary film about missile defense in America. The site includes video commentary, animations of missile defense strategies, and extended missile defense resources and articles.