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Ballistic Missile Defense is Not Yet Reality

Brian T. Kennedy
President, The Claremont Institute


Brian T. KennedyBrian T. Kennedy is president of the Claremont Institute and publisher of the Claremont Review of Books. He has directed the Institute’s Golden State Center in Sacramento and its National Security Project. A member of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense and co-author of Shariah: The Threat to America, his articles on national security affairs and public policy issues have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Investor’s Business Daily.



The following is adapted from a speech delivered on May 20, 2008, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in New York City.


In the course of fighting a global war against Islamic terrorism, a gross strategic failure has occurred: The United States has not fully prepared itself against a ballistic missile attack. To be sure, the U.S. today possesses—after seven-and-one-half years of the Bush administration—a very limited missile defense system consisting of a small number of ground-based interceptors; and soon it will have more capability, when a limited sea-based system comes online. But President Bush will leave office in January with the nation still essentially undefended against Russian, Chinese, or ship-launched terrorist missile attacks. Although Mr. Bush has accomplished more in this area than his predecessors, including Ronald Reagan, this failure is unacceptable.

Nowhere is it written that America is invincible. Yet the threat of nuclear attack has somehow seeped out of our consciousness. Because it didn’t happen during the Cold War, perhaps we presume it never will. But Islamic terrorists did fly planes into our buildings, and
if they obtain nuclear weapons, they will not shrink from using them on us. Nor do they pose the only threat to America of nuclear attack or nuclear blackmail.

Let us examine the three countries that present the greatest challenge to U.S. interests and security.

Russia, China, and Iran

Although we very much want Russia to become a peaceful member of the community of nations, recent events in Georgia suggest that this is unlikely anytime soon. Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush may seem to enjoy a warm relationship, but Russia will continue to seek what its rulers believe is in its interest. Sometimes this will coincide with the interests of the West, but sometimes it will not. In either case, we should make no mistake: Russia is proceeding to modernize its military and its ability to influence world events.

In 2005, President Putin announced that Russia was developing a new ballistic missile. The prototype of a new hypersonic vehicle, he said, had proved its ability to maneuver while in orbit, thereby enabling it to dodge an enemy’s missile shield. Russia clearly believed that the U.S. would build missile defense systems, and has taken steps to build weapons to negate them. With thousands of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, Russia remains a most serious threat to U.S. security.

Nor did our victory in the Cold War entail the disarming or reorganization of communist China—which, in fact, has over two million men under arms. And although China’s navy and air force are not as sophisticated as Russia’s, they still possess a minimum of 30 intercontinental ballistic missiles—most of them aimed at the U.S.—and hundreds of short and medium range nuclear missiles for use in an Asian theater of combat. Today, in an unprecedented build-up that has even liberal policy analysts concerned, the Chinese are building and testing more than one ballistic missile per week.

Furthermore, China’s military thinking is openly anti-American. Its military journals write candidly about unrestricted warfare using a combination of traditional military power, cyber warfare, economic warfare, nuclear warfare, and terrorism. China is also working to develop a space-based military capability and is investing in launch vehicles that include manned spaceflight, a space station, and extensive anti-satellite weaponry meant to negate U.S. global satellite coverage (the latter was successfully tested last year).

Both the Russians and the Chinese know that the only nation that can limit their influence is the U.S. Thus they seek to limit our influence on the world stage, and will undertake whatever policies serve that end.

Meanwhile, the goal of radical Islam is the conversion, subjugation, or destruction of the infidel peoples—first and foremost the citizens of the U.S., Western Europe, and Israel. Even after 9/11, we appear not to take that threat seriously. But Islam is not fragile. It has survived for over a thousand years, and has controlled at various times much of what we know as the civilized world. Even more worrisome, today its determination is matched with modern weaponry and it enjoys alliances with powerful non-Islamic powers.

Consider Iran. President Ahmadinejad and his Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have control of key strategic parts of the Iranian government, and the IRGC is capable of operating as a terrorist training unit both inside and outside of Iran (witness Iran’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its backing of lethal attacks on Americans in Iraq). For the past decade, Iran—with the assistance of Russia, China, and North Korea—has been developing missile technology. It is believed that the Iranians have produced hundreds of Shahab-3 missiles. This is not the most sophisticated missile in the world, but it is capable of carrying a payload to Israel or—if launched from a ship—to an American city.

The current controversy over Iran’s nuclear production is really about whether it can produce an industrial infrastructure that would be capable of producing nuclear warheads. It has sought nuclear capability since the time of the Shah, as most nations do, since nuclear weapons bestow on a country great military and political power. Even a fully democratic and pro-western Iran would want such weapons.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said in 2005: “Is it possible for us to witness a world without America and Zionism? But you had best know that this slogan and this goal are attainable, and surely can be achieved.” What about this do we not get?

Consider this scenario: An ordinary-looking freighter ship heading toward New York City or Los Angeles launches a missile from its hull or from a canister lowered into the sea. The missile hits a densely populated area and a million people are incinerated. The ship is sunk and no one claims responsibility. There is no firm evidence as to who sponsored the attack, and thus no one against whom to launch a counterstrike.

But as terrible as that scenario sounds, consider a second one: Let us say the freighter ship launches a nuclear-armed Shahab-3 missile off the coast of the U.S. and it explodes 300 miles over Chicago, creating an electromagnetic pulse. Gamma rays scatter in what is called the Compton effect, and three separate pulses disable consumer electronics, some automobiles, and, most importantly, the hundreds of large transformers that distribute power throughout the U.S. All of our lights, refrigerators, TVs and radios stop running. We have no communication. This is what is referred to as an EMP attack, and such an attack would effectively throw America back into the early nineteenth century. Perhaps hundreds of millions of us will die from lack of food and water and as a result of social breakdown.

Opponents of missile defense call such scenarios far fetched, on the basis that the U.S. would launch a nuclear attack against whatever nation attacks us. That is, they continue to rely on the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction that our leaders prior to Reagan relied on during the Cold War. But in my scenarios, we would not know who attacked us, so that doctrine is no help. And in any case, even if Iran could be identified as the attacker, who is to say that it wouldn’t gladly sacrifice itself to destroy the Great Satan? As the Ayatollah Khomeini said in 1979, during the American hostage crisis: “I say let [Iran] go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the world.”

I do not use the word “destroy” lightly: An EMP attack on the U.S. would mean the end of American civilization, and dropping nuclear weapons on or retaliating against whoever caused the attack will not bring our civilization back. Nor is this science fiction. Twice, in the Caspian Sea, the Iranians have tested their ability to launch ballistic missiles in a way to set off an EMP. And the congressionally-mandated EMP Commission, including some of America’s finest scientists, has released its findings and issued two separate reports, the most recent in July, describing the effects of such an attack on the U.S.

What to Do

The only solution to this problem is the building of a robust, multi-layered missile defense system. Our land-based system in Alaska and California will go far toward stopping a North Korean missile launched at the U.S. But it has very limited capabilities. It will not defend us against an EMP attack of the kind I have described.

The most effective form of missile defense is from space, using space-based interceptors that destroy an enemy warhead in its ascent phase when it is easily identifiable, slower, and has not yet deployed decoys. We know this can work from tests conducted in the early 1990s. We have the technology. What we lack is the political will to make it a reality.

Despite the growing Iranian, Chinese, and Russian arsenals, it is said we are postponing serious missile defense because we must win the war on terror first, as if we cannot do both simultaneously. It is also said that we need the help of Russia and China in the war on terrorism, and that such help will not be forthcoming if we build a missile defense. But the Iranian threat makes such concerns meaningless, and it should be our national policy to defend ourselves from the Russian and Chinese arsenals in any event. In the nuclear age, one does not have the luxury—if one could call it that—of a Pearl Harbor, after which we were able to regroup and rebuild and fight on to victory.

In the face of the threat of an EMP attack, the time for missile defense is now. Our enemies should understand that we will defend our freedom at any cost. In the words of Ronald Reagan, who put America on the road to missile defense: “If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth.”