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The relevance of ground-based midcourse missile defense

Ground-based Midcourse Defense is a critical element of US national defense against ballistic missiles

Since 2001 the War on Terror has dominated modern warfare for the United States. Engagements around the world, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been the focus of the country’s offensive and defensive military efforts abroad. With close to two decades of conflict focused on terrorism, one might start to question the resources dedicated to protection from more traditional threats such as adversarial foreign powers. One such resource is Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD).

For those unfamiliar with GMD, it is a major element of the United States’ missile defense strategy. Ground-based Interceptors and Ground Support & Fire Control Systems are the main components of the system. Their purpose is to intercept incoming ballistic missiles in space. According to the Missile Defense Agency, there are currently 44 interceptors enabled. These systems are emplaced at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and Fort Greely, Alaska.

The anatomy of a GMD interception is as follows. First, a ballistic missile is launched from somewhere in the world with a target in the United States. Networks of infrared sensors in space detect the launch, and a command and control network is notified. The ballistic missile is monitored and tracked by several assets: Aegis SPY-1 radar, sea-based X-band radar and upgraded early warning radar/Cobra Dane radar. At this point, an interceptor is launched from either California or Alaska at the incoming missile.

The monitoring assets refine the trajectory of the hostile ballistic missile and in-flight updates are sent to the interceptor.  The target is acquired, and the interceptor moves along a collision course with the missile. Finally the interceptor collides with the ballistic missile, destroying it.

The system has been tested to be very accurate. Tests have shown it to be an effective platform to protect the country from a potential ballistic missile threat.

Ground-based Midcourse Defense test
A test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system at Vandenberg Air Force Base, March 25, 2019. Image: Senior Airman Clayton Wear

Boeing is the prime contractor for the program and in 2008 the company was awarded a contract for $397.9 million to further develop GMD. In more recent years (FY16), the National Defense Authorization Act allowed for $1.8 billion for continued development of GMD and related components. The projected cost through 2017 was estimated to be over $40 billion.

With the Cold War relegated to the history books and anti-terrorism efforts the current focus, this may seem like a waste of resources. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Recent events, such as the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, keep our focus on terrorism. The world is a far more complicated place, however, and other threats may be on the horizon. As a nation we must not forget that systems like GMD protect us from the potential future threats we could have no way of predicting.

Several nations already have the ability to strike the United States with ballistic missiles, including China and Russia. To many, this may seem unlikely ever to occur. Ideally, our world leaders will have the skills to avoid such conflict in the future. While a peaceful resolution is always the desirable outcome, it is regrettably not the path always taken.

We must remember that history has shown time and time again how geopolitical issues can quickly alter the relationships between nations. In many cases, events have escalated rapidly and led to armed conflict. Look at the speed at which different nations were brought into the world wars for example.

Is it much of a stretch to think escalated trade wars with China could be the start of increased tensions between us? Stressors such as disputes over rights of passing through waterways in the South China Sea could place a further strain on the relationship between our nations and cause new discord leading eventually to armed conflict.

Of even more concern are nations looking to gain the capability to develop weapons systems that can reach the United States. North Korea and Iran are two such countries. While they may not possess the technology to do this now, how long will it be until they do? Both governments rebuke the United States for placing sanctions on them. Their leaders hold nothing back when speaking about their views against American world policy.

North Korea, in particular, has actively been testing delivery systems and claims their weapons can already reach American soil. It is believed the country already has a few nuclear weapons. Many of Kim Jong-un’s claims are often debunked, but there is still some truth there. While his saber-rattling tends to be overshadowed by coverage of al-Qaeda and ISIS, it should not be ignored.

With many possible threats not of a terrorist nature, the GMD is a necessary asset in the arsenal of the United States. It provides a level of protection that is vitally important.

A bonus to the system is that unlike the arms build-up of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, GMD is solely a defensive platform.  The system does not pose a threat to others. As a defensive system, it does not create an environment where other nations feel they need to defend against themselves against it. GMD is a great deterrent.

The survivability factor for targets on American soil easily justifies the system’s cost. If an adversary is to launch a ballistic missile targeting the United States, it is unlikely that the target would be small and isolated. Targets worth attacking include major cities where industry supports the war machine.

Cities like New York and Los Angeles are much more likely targets for a ballistic missile attack. Think for a minute of the human toll and economic setback we would face if a nuclear weapon destroyed one of these two cities. When we weigh $40 billion against this loss, it appears to be a very justified expense.

When looking at where we need to focus our resources as a country, it is essential to think long-term.  The GMD is an excellent example of how a narrow focus could lead one to believe the system is wasteful. Systems like the GMD need to be viewed with a broader field of view, a view more capable of seeing the entire scope of its usefulness. It is only then we understand how important a system GMD is to our national defense.

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