Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On Alert

The commander of U.S. Northern Command has announced that America's fledgling missile defense system can be placed on alert "at any time," in response to a crisis in Asia.

General Victor Renuart made the announcement Tuesday, less than one week after another successful test of the defensive shield. In the most recent test, a target missile was launched from Kodiak Island, Alaska, tracked by a ground-based radar at Beale AFB in northern California, and successfully engaged by an interceptor missile, fired from Vanderburg AFB. According to Lieutenant General Henry Obering III, Director of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the interceptor scored a direct hit on the target missile's dummy warhead.

"Does the system work? The answer is yes to that," Obering told the International Herald-Tribune. "Is it going to work against more complex threats in the future? We believe it will."

While the recent test was planned months ago, it provided an important indicator of the system's capabilities at a time when Congressional critics (read: Democrats) have demanded more testing, and are attempting to cut the program's budget. That's why General Renuart noted that the missile defense array can meet both operational and test requirements.

We can bring missiles up or take them down as need be so that they can continue doing the testing," said Renuart, commander of the military's Northern Command, based in Colorado Springs. But, he added, "I'm fully confident that we have all of the pieces in place that, if the nation needed to, we could respond."

We don't expect that the successful test--or General Renuart's comments--will have much of an impact on Senator Carl Levin (and his Congressional allies) who have proposed massive cutbacks in missile defense spending. If Mr. Levin gets his way, missile defense programs will be trimmed by at least $500 million in FY'08, and some critical programs--most notably, the Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL), used to destroy missiles in their boost phase--may not survive.

Budget battles aside, last week's test was clearly aimed at other key audiences, well outside the Beltway. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will head to Moscow soon, for a meeting over U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense shield in eastern Europe. The Russians are adamantly opposed to that proposal, noting that it moves the NATO "trip wire" closer to Russian territory, and (as the technology matures) the defensive shield could pose a threat to Moscow's strategic arsenal.

That's why Russia has begun setting the stage for that meeting; on Wednesday, the commander of Russian space forces vowed to retaliate if any nation stated putting weapons systems in orbit. The Russian commander didn't name specific countries in his remarks (published in a newspaper interview), but in the past, Moscow has tried to link the militarization of space with U.S. missile defense efforts, despite the fact that our current interceptors are ground or sea-based. Moscow will likely ratchet up the rhetoric in advance of the scheduled meeting, trying to prevent the U.S. from building missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, aimed at missile attacks from the Middle East.

Conveniently absent from the Russian argument is one of the key reasons for more missile defense spending, and (perhaps) space-based protection systems. Mr. Putin doesn't mention it very often, but one of his pet programs is something called a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), launched from an ICBM, the HGV maneuvers its way to a target, evading ground-based missile defenses. By some estimates, a Russian HGV could be operational by 2015, posing a new threat to western security. And, since Putin has shown no willingness to abandon the HGV, its deployment could lead to a militarization of space, because orbital systems--like the proposed U.S. "battle station" are the only effective way of countering the Russian system.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin's good friends in Beijing are doing their part, spending heavily on ground and space-based anti-satellite systems. Chinese concerns about the "militarization" of space largely mirror what Moscow is saying, and like the Russians, Beijing makes "exceptions" for systems it wants to preserve, including its ASAT programs.

In other words, both Russia and China would support a dismantling of U.S. ballistic missile defenses--before the technology matures--while pursuing their own advanced, strategic systems. There's nothing equitable in that proposal, all the more reason to push ahead on ground and sea-based missile defensive systems, and (if necessary) space platforms to guard against emerging threats like the Russian HGV.

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