The prospect of a nuclear conflict between the United States and North Korea appears, in light of President Trump’s speech at the United Nations and his recent spate of tweets evincing his distrust of diplomacy, disconcertingly possible. Courses of action available to the administration seem limited to further economic sanctions, which would likely prove futile, and military intervention. In the face of this nuclear threat and others yet to come, there isn’t much that can swiftly be done to ensure the safety of the American people, which is why legislators shouldn’t neglect the best enduring solution to the threat of a nuclear attack: missile defense.
A nuclear missile only poses a threat if it can strike its target. If legislators bolstered the U.S.’s missile defense system, that eventuality could be rendered virtually impossible. The ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system is responsible for intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles (IBCMs) carrying nuclear, biological, and conventional payloads as they zip through space toward the U.S. Hypothetically, GMD ensures that Americans don’t need to fret about having their communities extinguished by incoming nukes, yet there’s one small hitch — the program has been carelessly underfunded for over a decade.
Earlier this year in a missile defense test conducted above the Marshall Islands, an innovative GMD interceptor missile successfully neutralized an ICBM-class target. The test’s success illustrates the practical value of the program and underscores its steadily increasing rate of successful target interception. Yet, the costs of testing are substantial and the program’s capacity to boost that rate is unduly inhibited by limited funds.
Last week, the Pentagon requested that Congress reallocate $416 million from a variety of defense accounts to missile defense related programs — and not without reason. According to a recent report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, overall spending on missile defense has declined by 46.5 percent, and spending on GMD testing has declined by a grim 83.5 percent since 2006 (adjusted for inflation). Currently, spending on the program has virtually flat lined, which doesn’t bode well considering the fevered velocity of global nuclear proliferation and technological advancement.
North Korea’s recent success in developing a hydrogen bomb loadable into the tip of an ICBM is a mere whisper in the chorus of nuclear proliferation. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as the U.S. decommissions its old nukes, the number of nukes in Asia is rising, not only in North Korea, but also in China, India, and Pakistan. These new nukes are generally deadlier, more precise, and easier to deliver than are their predecessors. For example, earlier last month, China unveiled in a spirited military parade, the DF-31AG, an ICBM capable of delivering nuclear warheads to most of the continental US while simultaneously finalizing its plan to send nuclear-armed submarines into the Pacific Ocean.
And as nuclear weapons technology inevitably continues its progress, the potential costs of a weak GMD system skyrocket. Ultimately, it’s far cheaper from an economic perspective to dole out a comparatively small sum on missile defense development and research annually than foot the costs of war and reconstruction that would surely arise in the aftermath of a successful nuclear missile attack on the U.S. Likewise, a robust American GMD system would render the costs of a missile attack higher for any country considering the option — not only because such a system would neutralize the costly investment required to develop, maintain, and launch nuclear missiles, but also because it would preserve the U.S.’s ability to respond after the attack’s failure.
In order to sustain that investment value in the years to come as more countries acquire longer-range ballistic missiles, it might prove worthwhile to fortify the missile defense program’s presence on the West Coast, place additional missile defense batteries on the East Coast, and eventually construct a space-based missile interceptor layer.
The fact that now — as rhetoric of “fire and fury” sounds throughout the nation — our options to manage the current crisis are few and unpalatable should serve as ample motivation to better fund the GMD system. Legislators have religiously bloated the defense budget with funding for the tools of destruction while neglecting funding for a program that exists solely to protect Americans from an existential threat. This is inexcusable and if ever America should suffer a missile attack or find itself tragically compelled to launch a preemptive nuclear strike — it will be unforgivable.