Missile Defense Comes of Age

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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.

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.

Not everyone is embracing the new defense realities. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists -- which maintains a 100 percent success rate in knocking down every pro-missile defense argument -- is officially unimpressed by Iron Dome. Among its reasons: Iron Dome's operators haven't been transparent, just like Raytheon's Patriot missile developers during Desert Storm in 1991; Patriot's Desert Storm hit-rate proved to be exaggerated; ergo Iron Dome's hit-rate will prove equally dubious. As syllogisms go, it's more Alfred E. Newman than Aristotle.

Next comes the Bulletin's scorn for the "high cost" of operating Iron Dome, which -- at a cost of $50,000 per interceptor rocket -- ran up a tab in the "latest conflict ... between $25 million and $30 million." Sounds like a lot of money to take down 400 rockets. And yet in the pre-Dome days of 2006, when Hezbollah rained down rockets from installations in southern Lebanon, the cost to Israel in terms of damage and lost economic activity was estimated at $3.5 billion.

Then there's the human cost. In 2006, Israel recorded 43 civilian deaths and more than 1,000 injuries from rocket fire. Last month, with Iron Dome in place, the death toll was five, with several dozen injured. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists may tut-tut at the cost per Iron Dome missile, but Israel's public officials may find the cost-benefit in terms of civilian lives saved worth the investment.

MAD diehards will point out the difference between shooting down rockets and hitting ballistic missiles in flight, but it will be hard to redeploy the MAD doctrine on this slippery slope, arguing that missile defense is acceptable against little threats but not more lethal ones. Old arguments that less-than-perfect missile defenses deter less than the no-defense theory of Mutual Assured Destruction are falling to the practical value of blunting even some of the missiles showered down on apartment buildings, schools and shopping malls.

But the surest sign that the war on missile defense is over comes from the Obama administration -- direct descendant of Ted Kennedy's Star Wars school of Anti-Anti-Missile Defense -- now waxing Reagan-esque in lauding its funding for Iron Dome, and providing American Patriots for Japan and Turkey. In a world where more and more regimes loose rockets against civilian populations and pursue ballistic missile capabilities, fewer and fewer are persuaded that if you can't stop every missile fired against you, why bother trying to stop any at all? That's a logic that works better from the comfort of a tenured chair at an elite university than next door to Bashar al-Assad or Kim Jong-un, or from a home within rocket range of Gaza.

Increasingly, the civilians of the world and the governments who represent them have a choice: They can be shielded by the academic arguments of the anti-anti-missile crowd -- or by the less-than-perfect anti-missile technology of the day. The latter view seems to be increasingly popular within the Circular Error Probable of the rockets of Pyongyang, Damascus, Gaza and -- perhaps one day (too) soon -- Tehran.

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