Day by day, the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea are ratcheting up the threats of fiery destruction. The missile defense system based at Fort Greely, southeast of Fairbanks, is intended to shield the entire nation from attack. The system has had a spotty test record, but U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said he has confidence in it. In fact, Sullivan wants Congress to invest in more anti-ballistic missiles at Fort Greely.
Sullivan is one of the Senate’s biggest boosters of missile defense. He’s been warning that one day, through news reports or from intelligence agencies, we would learn that the threat is at our doorstep.
“And when that happens,” Sullivan said, restating the warning, “we want to make sure our leaders have the capacity, and the capability and the strategic time and space, to say, ‘America whether it’s Anchorage or Chicago or New York, we’ve got you covered.'”
Sullivan said we’re living the kind of scenario he’s been warning about. So how sure is he that America is covered?
“I’m confident,” Sullivan said. “But we can do more.”
Sullivan sponsored a bill to increase the number of interceptors at Fort Greely by 28. That’s on top of the 40 that are already installed, or will be by year’s end. (Most of his proposal has been wrapped into the annual defense bill that’s pending in the Senate.)
Each missile costs roughly $80 million, so this is a multi-billion dollar proposal. Sullivan said he’s not sure exactly where the money for the expansion would come from.
“But it’s a good question, right? Because obviously the defense budget is limited,” Sullivan said. “What I was arguing in the (Senate Armed Services) Committee as we were marking this bill up was that sometimes you need to re-prioritize defense spending. And nobody can tell me that this hasn’t become a priority.”
Whether it comes at the expense of other defense spending or from elsewhere in the budget, Sullivan said missile defense is a good value.
“Buying that kind of insurance for everybody, not just Alaska but for every city in America, to me is a price that almost any American would want to pay,” Sullivan said.
To date, the U.S. has spent about $40 billion on its ground-based missile defense system. It’s designed to destroy an enemy missile in space, before it begins descending toward North America. But the system has had technical problems. It has failed to intercept a mock warhead in about half of its last 18 tests. Sullivan said the Missile Defense Agency is addressing the problems. Besides, he said the U.S. has more than one interceptor it can shoot at a North Korean launch, so even without an expansion, he believes the missile shield would work.
“So I’m confident, but … we should have a belt and suspenders approach to this,” Sullivan said.
Philip Coyle is skeptical the ground-base missile defense system can reliably do the job.
“I’m not very confident. Not very confident at all,” Coyle said.
Coyle is a former assistant defense secretary who was in charge of operational testing and evaluation at the Pentagon. He’s now a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Looking at the tests since the start of 2010, Coyle said the success rate of the system that’s housed at Fort Greely system is only 40 percent.
“Meaning … out of 10 tries, it would miss six of those,” Coyle said.
Coyle agrees with Sullivan that the U.S. would aim multiple interceptors at a single missile. But, he said the strategy hasn’t been tested, and the enemy missile would only be in space for so long.
“You basically run out of time,” Coyle said.
Coyle said he’s not entirely familiar with Sullivan’s bill. Parts of it aim to advance the technology, and Coyle said they may be good. But he cautions against building more of the same defensive missiles we already have.
“The problem with building more and more interceptors, especially if they don’t work very well to start with, is we just encourage the enemy to build more and more offensive missiles to attack us so that they can overwhelm our defenses,” Coyle said. “So you get the enemy building more and more missiles, which is exactly the opposite of what we would want.”
A different U.S. missile defense system has performed better in tests. That system is called THAAD, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. A THAAD interceptor launched from Kodiak last month hit its target in a test. But, even if THAAD were deployed in Alaska permanently, it wouldn’t do much good.
Coyle and other experts say that system can’t protect from an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile. It’s designed to knock out slower, shorter-range missiles and to protect a smaller area. He said it would take thousands of THAAD missiles, planted everywhere, to protect a land mass the size of the U.S.