Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Next Generation

Yesterday, we voiced concern over the Democrats' apparent plans to "gut" the nation's missile defense program. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan (incoming Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and key House Democrats are expected to propose a rigorous testing program for missile defense program, when their party takes control of Congress next month. Deployment of future defense systems would be based on the results of future tests. While their proposal sounds reasonable, it's really nothing more than an effort to slowly strangle missile defense, by creating test requirements that can never be realized.

And, making matters worse, Democratic efforts to scale back BMD are coming at a time when weapons systems are reaching the deployment stage, and the need for missile defenses has never been greater. As we've noted on several occasions, the U.S. will likely face not one, but 3-4 rogue states with ICBMs (North Korea, Iran, Syria and Venezuela) within a decade. Our ability to deal with that type of threat will depend, in large part, on missile defense decisions made now. Senator Levin has long believed that missile defenses undermine arms control agreements, so he will likely proceed with efforts to bury BMD under an avalanche of testing requirements--despite emerging threats, and the fact that Russia has retained its own anti-missile shield, allowed under the 1972 ABM treaty. While Moscow has long criticized U.S. BMD efforts, successive Russian governments have invested billions in building (and maintaining) a limited missile defense system around Moscow.

The Russians are also engaged in another weapons program that provides even greater justification for U.S. missile defenses. Over the past decade, Moscow has been experimenting with advanced delivery systems, designed to defeat ground-based BMD systems. Russia's most advanced ICBM--the SS-27 Topol--is probably equipped with advanced counter-measures, designed to confuse missile defenses. Additionally, at least half of Russia's SS-27 force (roughly 200 missiles) will be based on mobile launchers, making them more difficult to detect and target. Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed a high priority on modernizing his nation's nuclear forces, in part to compensate for drawdowns among conventional forces.

Beyond the SS-27, Russia is also working on something called a hypersonic glide vehicle, a maneuverable nuclear delivery platform, launched from an ICBM. Moscow apparently conducted a test of its HGV back in 2004, and development of that system is apparently continuing. Potential deployment of a Russian HGV would be an ominous development, since that system is virtually invulnerable to ground-based detection and defensive systems. An interesting discussion of Moscow's HGV program can be found here. While it's a bit dated, the various comments and articles underscore Russia's standing interest in HGV technology.

With Putin's support, work on the HGV will almost certainly continue, despite the resources required. Russian officials indicate that the HGV could be operational between 2010-2015, creating a new threat for the United States. That's one reason the Bush Administration has suggested development of space-based missile defenses; an orbital "battle station," designed to detect and destroy missiles in their boost stage, is one of the few systems that could engage a launch vehicle before it deploys the HGV.

Unfortunately, orbital missile defenses aren't on Senator Levin's priority list. In fact, it's almost certain that he would oppose such efforts, despite growing interest in HGV technology. That's why it's highly unlikely that the U.S. will have anything to counter a Russian hypersonic glide vehicle when it becomes operational in the next decade. True, Moscow still has significant technical challenges to overcome, and the projected cost seems almost prohibitive, but Putin seems determined to see the project through. Besides, if money becomes a major issue, the Russians can always turn to their friends in Beijing, who also have an interest in HGV technology.

Hypersonic glide vehicles represent the "next generation" of intercontinental nuclear threats, and the time to prepare for them is now. Regrettably, one of our best options for dealing with that challenge--space-based missile defenses--seems destined to die a budgetary death, at the hands of a Democratic Congress.

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