The proliferation of ballistic missiles around the world is a real threat, not only to the US but to many of its allies. This is why US President Donald Trump’s latest speech on the subject, and his administration’s recently published Missile Defense Review, are so timely.
During his speech at the Pentagon last week, Trump laid out his vision clearly, saying: “Our goal is simple, to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.” While some might dismiss this as the usual Trumpian rhetoric, he is right to focus on improving America’s missile defense capability.
A strong and robust missile defense system serves as an important component of America’s national security architecture. A capable missile defense system gives policymakers more time to make decisions during a crisis, and offers the US a greater ability to deter attacks. If an attack does occur, a missile defense system can protect vital infrastructure and population centers.
The threat is not going away. Ballistic missiles are the weapon of choice for many adversaries. More than 30 countries have them in their inventory, and this number is only increasing. Ballistic missiles are able to evade many existing defense systems because they travel at very high speeds. They also come at a relatively low cost compared to other conventional weapons. As technology advances, the cost of developing, maintaining and employing these weapons decreases.
Regarding the protection of the US, the Missile Defense Review announced more improvements to missile defense, including increasing the number of interceptors in Alaska and building new sensors in the Pacific region. There was even a focus on space-based sensors, though little mention of space-based interceptors, as originally envisioned by then-President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s.
During his speech, Trump explicitly stated his desire to place the safety and protection of Americans first against the threat of missiles. As US president, this is a completely reasonable desire. While this might have undertones of an “America First” ideology, many allies stand to benefit from US advancements in missile defense technology.
More than 100,000 American citizens are living in the Middle East — all of them are under threat from Iranian missiles.
In fact, Trump stressed the importance of helping US partners and allies defend themselves, saying: “Our plan directs the Department of Defense to prioritize the sale of American missile defense and technology to our allies and to our partners.” So the more the US focuses on improving missile defense capabilities, the better for its allies because that same defense technology will become commercially available over time.
Perhaps there is no region that understands the missile threat more than the Middle East. Iran is the biggest culprit. The failed nuclear deal completely ignored Tehran’s ballistic missile ambitions, and now the region is suffering the consequences.
Iran routinely flouts UN resolutions on the testing of ballistic missiles. Its proxies have benefited greatly from its largesse. Hezbollah and the Houthis possess more missiles in their inventory than some nation states — many of these missiles are ballistic. In 2018, the Houthis fired dozens of ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, a number of which were intercepted by Saudi missile defense systems.
The US should place a particular focus on helping its partners in the Middle East improve their missile defense capabilities. Doing so is in America’s national interest. After all, there are tens of thousands of US service personnel and more than 100,000 American citizens living in the Middle East — all of them are under threat from Iranian missiles. So any missile defense system protecting Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Riyadh will also potentially protect tens of thousands of US citizens.
Critics of US missile defense argue that advancements in this technology will create an arms race, like that seen during the Cold War, by forcing adversaries to rapidly increase their missile inventory. This is nonsense. Every country has the right to self-defense. If the technology exists and the threat is real, any leader of any nation has the moral obligation to do everything possible to protect its citizens.
As with most major policy speeches delivered by politicians, the proof will be in the pudding. Implementing the type of missile defense system that Trump outlined will be incredibly expensive, and will require policymakers and legislators to appropriate adequate funding. Given the strain on federal spending in the US, it remains to be seen if the vision in Trump’s speech will become reality.
The threat from ballistic missiles is not going away, and the technology to defend against them must keep pace. Giving a speech and publishing a review is one thing. Actually developing and employing a proper missile defense system is quite another. Now is not the time to become complacent.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey