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Missiles Confound ABM Technology

Prepared by: Michael Moran
July 27, 2006

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That missiles figure in two of the world's running political sores—the conflict between Arabs and Israel, and tensions among North Korea and its U.S.-aligned neighbors—provides succor to both sides of the American "missile defense" debate. From the right, the Wall Street Journal denounces "Taepodong Democrats" who complain about the price of unproven missile defense programs. "With the expanding North Korean and Iran missile threats, it'd be nice to think Democrats would acknowledge their mistakes," the newspaper editorializes. From another quarter, Matthew Yglesias in the American Prospect Online says the conflicts suggest ballistic missile defense not only wastes money, but is "the tip of a wildly misguided intellectual iceberg"—a whole worldview that radically misconceives the nature of America's interests and the contemporary international situation."

Far from proving either case, experts say the events of the past two weeks argue for a change of emphasis in U.S. anti-missile efforts. The problem, argues Heritage's James Jay Carafano, is the focus on a missile shield which would render the American homeland invulnerable—a dream espoused by Ronald Reagan in 1983 and embraced by the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency. This new report (PDF) from the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense is the latest argument that the $130 billion spent on these strategic programs will be worth it in the long run.

But Carafano and others argue short-ranged rockets and missiles like those in Hezbollah's arsenal provide a much more useful focus for U.S. defense planning because they are far more likely to be used and much more difficult to detect (WashPost). Michael A. Levi, a CFR science and technology fellow, agrees the tendency to emphasize strategic missile defense may be missing the mark. He says in an interview: "It's more useful to invest in missile shields that may not be able to work against all threats but do work against some limited number of very significant threats." Carafano and Levi also stress tools like bomb shelters and the recent Proliferation Security Initiative.

How does all this relate to the current Middle East and East Asian crises? In East Asia, the United States and Japan field two systems designed to intercept large missiles (WashPost). The PAC-3 anti-missile batteries target missiles on the way down. The more sophisticated, ship-borne Aegis Anti-Ballistic Missile systems, designed to hit missiles earlier in their trajectory, are housed on U.S. and Japanese warships that were deployed to the Sea of Japan when intelligence suggested the North Koreans might conduct missile launches in late spring. Neither system got a test in this instance, nor did they deter the launches, either.

Israel, meanwhile, is growing frustrated with its own missile defense. Israel spent a good deal of energy working with U.S. scientists on its Arrow missile interceptor in the years following the Scud attacks of the Gulf War. But experts say what works for a large, slow-moving Scud simply is not relevant against smaller Katyusha and other artillery rockets Hezbollah is raining down on northern Israel. John Pike, a defense expert at GlobalSecurity.org, explains the difference between missiles and rockets in this podcast.

Because of this new dynamic, some Israelis, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argue Hezbollah's missiles can only be stopped if Hezbollah itself is defeated (WSJ). Technology, this school of thought goes, simply isn't relevant in this case.

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