The Ballistic Missile Threat: Defense and Technology

Article excerpt

The United States is at a crossroads. It has defined the ballistic missile threat in terms of a rogue nation, principally North Korea, which demonstrated on August 31, 1998, the ability to launch a three-stage ballistic missile capable of attacking the United States. But the ballistic missile threat has grown rapidly, going far beyond a threat from a single rogue nation. China's buildup of short, intermediate, and long-range ballistic missiles, and the proliferation of ballistic missiles to countries such as Iran, Syria, Libya, and Pakistan (the threat of war between Pakistan and India, with its broad repercussions: and China's threat to Northeastern India) have multiplied the ballistic missile threat.1 In this article, the author will discuss strategies and technologies of defense against these threats.

Key Words: Ballistic missiles, defenses to missiles, technologies of missile defense, missile proliferation, North Korea, China, Pakistan, Brilliant Pebbles, Brilliant Eyes, Space-Based Lasers, boost phase interception.

The ballistic missile threat has compounded. Countries such as Russia, China, and North Korea, involved in the proliferation of ballistic missiles, are forming strategic alliances. Russia and China have a strategic alliance, including the transfer of Russian SS-18 ballistic missile technology to China.2 North Korean leader Kim Jong-11 has visited China, and has received visits from the PLA.3 Russia and Iran have signed a formal military and security partnership.4 China and Iraq have formed a strategic alliance, profoundly altering the b-alance of power in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.5 With China and Iraq as allies, China's recent diplomatic initiatives with Syria and Iran, sending Vice President Hu Jintao, must be evaluated in a new light.6 China's ballistic missile assistance to Pakistan, and North Korea's ballistic missile sales to Syria and Libya compound the international implications.7

All of this means that a ballistic missile threat to the United States defined by a single rogue nation such as North Korea is outdated. The proliferation of ballistic missiles and alliances has increased the likelihood that a missile launched by one country will be connected to a missile launch or act of aggression by another. The United States, instead of facing a single rogue nation missile threat, is likely to face multiple threats. Moreover, the ballistic missile threat is becoming increasingly mobile, compounding the difficulty of using air power to suppress ballistic missile launches. And although some will ask whye we should worry about missile attacks when weapons of mass destruction can be smuggled into a tragetted country, the fact remains that when hundreds of ballistic missiles are in place, a country which has no protection against missiles is open to blackmail since it has no other defense that the dubious threat of retaliation after the event, or "mutual assured destruction".

And the potential for aggressive missile launches against the U.S. and other nations is real. We see China building the road-mobile DF-31 ICBM, the road-mobile DF-41 ICBM, and the submarine-launched JL-2. It has flight-tested the DF-31 ICBM four times in the past year and a half.8 Iran has looked at launching ballistic missiles from a ship. The ballistic missile threat, moreover, can appear as an upper atmosphere nuclear burst which would create an enormous electromagnetic pulse that would shut down U.S. satellite communications.

The potential for this type of attack on U.S. satellites, using an electromagnetic pulse, was warned about in a recent study by a panel chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense.9 Rumsfeld also chaired a congressionally appointed commission on assessing the ballistic missile threat to the United States that released its warning in July 1998, noting how the United States could expect little or no warning of a ballistic missile attack.

The ballistic missile threat faced by the United States can appear unexpectedly from any quarter. …