Congress Shouldn't Compromise a Key Missile Defense Program
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By Rebecca Grant
To trim the budget, lawmakers may suspend a critical element of America's missile defenses.
But gutting this core national security technology -- the "Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle" -- would seriously undermine national security. Missile defense has never played a more important role in protecting Americans and keeping global threats in check.
The EKV is the part of a missile defense rocket that collides with incoming ordnance. Using sophisticated radars, a defense system detects an enemy missile. It then launches a multi-stage rocket that, once exiting the earth's atmosphere, ejects the EKV. The EKV then navigates its way to the targeted missile, hits, and destroys it.
Currently, the United States has 30 EKV units in operation. 14 more are under development and are planned to become operational by 2017. Because so much of the legwork is completed, investing in new EKV units is an efficient use of taxpayer resources; engineers don't have to build a new system from scratch. By upgrading this system our country will be protected by the most advanced missile defense technology available.
In June, military personnel conducted a successful test of the newest EKV unit, with the interceptor hitting a dummy target. This is major milestone as it's the first successful intercept using the second-generation EKV.
Some previous test runs have failed, but such failures aren't unusual. After all, these are incredibly sophisticated systems attempting to hit targets travelling thousands of miles per hour in suborbital space.
Experts from the military and industry have proven they can turn around once-flailing missile defense projects in a timely manner.
Consider the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), a sea-based interceptor that targets short- to intermediate-range missiles. It also suffered failures in early testing, but with additional resources the kinks were quickly worked out. SM-3 has now successfully intercepted missiles in space 26 times. The lesson: upgrade an existing and capable system, rather than starting over.
Appreciating these nuances, the top military brass has proposed investing another $560 million into EKV development. That's about 1 percent of what's apportioned for missile defense of the next three years.
However, some in Congress are pushing back. They want the EKV shelved, in favor of starting over with a new technology.
But starting from scratch would waste an enormous amount of time and money. And scrapping EKV would leave our existing defenses bereft of an essential component for several extra years.
That's dangerous. Effective missile defense isn't a luxury; it's a necessity.
Consider North Korea's nuclear missile program, with the stated goal of being able to launch a pre-emptive attack on the United States. Or Iran's nuclear weapons program. That country's ruling elite continues to spout apocalyptic visions.
We have to be ready in case they strike first. And we need our technologies to evolve with the increasingly sophisticated missiles of rogue regimes. As Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated, "a robust and capable missile defense is our best bet to defend the United States from such an attack."
We can't afford to wait to build an entirely new replacement for the EKV. Investing and fixing today's system with existing technologies will ensure our defense systems will be fully operational as quickly as possible. Scrapping the EKV would leave us vulnerable to dangerous rogue regimes.
Rebecca Grant, Ph.D., is president of IRIS Independent Research, a Washington-based public-policy research organization.