The French Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and the Armed Forces recently released a report called “Ballistic Missile Defense: Military Shield or Strategic Challenge?” This report urges France to take a strong role in the NATO missile defense program and to develop a space-based (exoatmospheric) ballistic missile defense interceptor. This would be a great step in the right direction for NATO and the French defense industry—one the United States should learn from.
Space-based interceptors present the best option for a boost-phase missile defense. In the boost phase, ballistic missiles are the most vulnerable to counterattack, because they are slow and have not deployed countermeasures yet. Low speed and absence of countermeasures make it easier to track the missile; if the U.S. and its allies are able to track a missile, they can kill the missile. The United States advanced the concept of a space-based intercept in its Brilliant Pebbles (later known as Global Protection Against Limited Strikes) program in late 1980s and early 1990s, but the Clinton Administration decided to terminate the program. Despite significant successes of the program, it has never been reconstituted; however, as findings of the Independent Working Group indicate, interceptors in space would allow the United States and its allies to obtain a truly effective missile defense capability. An estimated cost of a space-based test bed for missile defense interceptors is $3 billion to $5 billion over three years.
The French see the missile defense program as a way to protect the country from being outdistanced by the United States in missile technology and a means to protect France from a ballistic missile threat. For the United States, concerns are somewhat different. The primary task of the ballistic missile defense system is to protect the U.S. homeland from North Korean and eventually Iranian ballistic missiles as well as accidental launches. The ballistic missile threat to the United States, its forward-deployed troops, and allies is growing, as more than 30 countries around the world have the technology and capabilities to deliver lethal payloads.
For the United States, maintaining a healthy defense industrial base is essential to “provide for the common defense”—the primary constitutional obligation of the government. The missile defense industry needs clear guidance and sustained support from the leadership in government to meet the task. Yet since the Obama Administration took office, it has made massive cuts in missile defense programs, cancelled promising programs (e.g. the Kinetic Energy Interceptor or the Multiple Kill Vehicle), pulled out of joint programs (e.g. the Medium Extended Air Defense System with Italy and Germany), and negotiated an arms-reduction treaty with Russia that imposes sweeping restrictions on U.S. missile defense options. This raises questions about the Administration’s commitment to missile defense. The U.S. government should take note of the French efforts, which are a step in the right direction for the development of missile defenses.