Not Your Father’s Missile Defense

When it comes to missile defense, smaller is beautiful.

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An Iranian missile

Mieke Eoyang is the director of Third Way's National Security Program. Prior to joining Third Way, Eoyang had a long career on Capitol Hill. Among other positions, she served as the defense policy adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy, was the subcommittee staff director on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and was a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee. Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way.

We're overdue for an updating of the missile defense debate. A lot of folks remember the Reagan- era missile defense system called the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, derisively known as "Star Wars." At the time, Reagan promised a shield in space to defend against hostile attack, but multiple problems quickly emerged—for example, opponents said it would be technologically impossible to use missiles to strike incoming multiple Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles using a technology that did not yet exist.

Another challenge with SDI is that it undermined the theory of deterrence. After all, if one nuclear power had little to fear from another—Reagan promised in his second inaugural address that SDI would render "nuclear weapons obsolete"—the idea of nuclear retaliation would disappear and would allow for the first use of nuclear weapons. Finally, Reagan's SDI was a huge financial sinkhole costing billions and billions of dollars. F or example, in 1987 the White House requested $5.4 billion for the system, while the next highest request was to procure F/A-18 jets for the Navy … for only $2.8 billion.

That was the old debate. Since the Gulf War, we saw a test of this early missile technology, with Patriot missile batteries defending our troops and our allies against Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles. While the successes of this military platform have been called into question , there is no question that the technology has significantly improved since then. But u nlike SDI with its idea of stopping the USSR's ICBMs, we have now seen that missile defense is effective against enemies in the neighborhood during a hot war.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Smaller is beautiful, and we don't have to look far back to see it can also be effective. In Israel's conflict with Hamas last year, its much-vaunted Iron Dome technology—which only went from concept to deployment in a few years—proved extremely effective in the heat of a shooting war, downing some 85 percent all of the incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip deployed Patriot missile systems in Turkey to defend its territory (and Syrian refugees) from Bashar al-Assad's forces. Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates recently purchased America's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to defend against possible Iranian missiles.

Of course, Iron Dome was effective against a non state actor's short-range missiles; it remains unclear what would happen if a country was faced with a more sophisticated, longer-range missile threat. We hope that we don't have to find out. In the meantime, we should continue to develop this proven technology.  Currently, Raytheon and other U.S. firms are collaborating with Israeli defense contractors to develop systems that would mitigate more serious missile threats.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

And mitigating at least some of the threats from above, provides policymakers some degree of political breathing space to keep from escalating a crisis. If, say, Hamas had been able to effectively strike major Israeli cities and kill many innocent people in 2012, there is little doubt that Israel's electorate's desire for payback would have pressured Israeli policymakers to greatly extend their efforts in Gaza. By minimizing civilian casualties, missile defense helped politicians on the Israeli side make more clear-headed decisions.

The lesson of missile defense is that, by starting smaller and organically in real world situations, they have shown that they work. This is not to say America should cease our arms control or non-proliferation efforts, but that regional missile defense plays and will continue to play an important role in defending civilians from missile-enabled hostile actors around the world.   

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