Missile Defense Comes of Age

By Daniel McGroarty

Amidst the grim news of this past month, with rocketing in Gaza, North Korean missile tests and the continued carnage in Syria, a pragmatic consensus is taking shape on the strategic imperative of missile defense.

Within the past week, first in East Asia and then Eurasia, missile defense assumed a critical role in response to overt and implied threats emanating from North Korea and Syria. The two events come less than four weeks after Israel's Iron Dome changed the battlefield dynamic in the latest conflict with Hamas. Together, they augur a shift over the past 30 days breaking a 30-year stalemate between proponents of missile defense and its critics, defenders of the Cold War concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). According to MAD, attempts to defend against missile attack upset the deterrent calculus that, in the words of Josef Joffe, "he who shoots first dies second." While that logic stilled the trigger hands of the grey men of the Kremlin and American presidents alike, many are less sure the logic holds for deranged dictators and mullahs awaiting the return of the Mahdi.

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Even so, to claim 2012 as the Year of Missile Defense may sound strange when, according to a Bloomberg report, the U.S. alone has spent $150 billion over the past three decades on missile defense development. But big numbers float free until context comes along: The missile defense budget for 2012 ($8.6 billion) is just over half of what's being spent by toy manufacturers on TV ads targeted on our pre-teens ($15 billion).

Not until now -- driven by the slow progression of technical anti-missile capabilities and the proliferation of missile delivery capabilities of all ranges among the world's rogue regimes -- has the missile threat reached critical menace.

Witness last week's long-awaited North Korean Unha-3 ballistic missile launch, demonstration of a capability used this time to lift a satellite into orbit, but entirely consistent with delivering a warhead, perhaps nuclear. Twelve minutes after launch, the missile passed over Okinawa, though Japan elected to track its trajectory rather than engage its Patriot PAC 3 system. While Japan stood by this time, it seems likely Patriot batteries will remain at several sites on Okinawa and Ishigaki, with Aegis anti-missile destroyers patrolling the Sea of Japan.

As the week ended, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta authorized the deployment of two U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries to Turkey's Syrian border, where they will join four more Patriot batteries redeployed from the Netherlands and Germany, in response to the Assad regime's use of ballistic missiles against rebel-held positions.

But the breakthrough news comes from Israel, where in 10 days in November Iron Dome took down hundreds of Iranian-designed Fajr 5 and Grad rockets launched from Gaza. Reports peg Iron Dome's success rate at between 80 and 85 percent.

In the new missile defense consensus, it's key that while Iron Dome is Israeli designed, it is funded in part by the U.S.: $205 million in 2010 -- about 30 minutes' worth of U.S. federal spending -- with an additional 10 minutes, er, $70 million in 2011, proudly provided by a Democratic President whose party had long held missile defense to be dangerous and destabilizing.

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Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.
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