12/12/2012 05:23 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

Defense Needs Big Cuts, but Missile Defense Isn't the Place

Two decades ago, with the Soviet Union in ruins, Americans could finally take some measure of comfort that, for the first time since the Cold War began, our nation no longer seemed in danger from ballistic missiles. How fast times have changed.

North Korea successfully launched a three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday, making them only the fourth nation on earth to have ICBM capabilities. The missile, which can reach American soil, is said to have placed a satellite into orbit, raising the specter of whether it might also be able to carry a nuclear warhead.

Half a world away, a fearful Turkish government has obtained NATO assistance in fortifying its border with Syria against the possibility that embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will use missiles to deploy the deadly sarin nerve gas he is believed to be developing. Less than 1,000 miles from Damascus, Iran has devoted much of this year testing new missiles of ever-increasing range and lethality.

The world is still a dangerous place after all and budget planners at the Pentagon need to rise to the occasion.

Last month, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn issued a report identifying $67.9 billion in non-essential -- and sometimes ridiculous -- Defense Department spending, everything from a $5.2 million study of trained shiner fish to understand human political behavior to $117 million in renewable energy boondoggles that the Pentagon's own Inspector General found "tainted."

Nevertheless, while the Pentagon budget is long overdue for much-needed spending cuts, policy-makers looking for places to trim would be short-sighted if they don't recognize the need for an effective missile defense. It's a vital consideration, both for the United States and our allies.
Once derided in the last days of the USSR as "Star Wars," we need only look to our friend Israel for the most recent illustration of what an effective missile defense system can achieve and why it is so important.

Israel's "Iron Dome" system racked up an extraordinary record of success last month as Hamas showered hundreds of missiles upon Israeli territory. Iron Dome was able to intercept and destroy upwards of 90 percent of the deadly incoming rockets fired from Gaza. Critics are right to note that the speed and accuracy of the missiles in the Hamas arsenal are not comparable to those that Iran or North Korea are soon expected to have at their disposal. That's why Iron Dome is just one layer in a planned defense system that also includes Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 interceptors to defend against longer-range ballistic missiles, which present far more complex challenges.

Here at home, our own missile defense portfolio includes the recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile to intercept medium and intermediate-range missiles that may threaten the Hawaiian Islands. The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, deployed on U.S. Navy warships, utilizes the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), an anti-ballistic missile capable of destroying both incoming ballistic missiles and enemy satellites in lower orbit. The SM-3 complements the Patriot Missile System, the venerable surface-to-air missile that first proved itself during the 1990 Gulf War.

Originally developed to destroy enemy aircraft, a series of improvements to the Patriot's hardware and software systems have made it capable of targeting fast-moving incoming missiles as well, making it one of the most formidable anti-missile systems in the world. During the second Iraq War, the Patriot established a perfect record by intercepting and destroying every enemy missile it targeted, earning it a position in the arsenals now protecting Japan, Turkey, and 10 other nations.

As advanced as our missile defense has become, no defense system can address all the potential threats that face us. Nevertheless, considering the dire consequences of failing to do so, we must make sure our systems remain well funded and serve as a deterrent to adversaries who have shown themselves able to unleash more lethal, longer-range attacks and are increasingly capable of doing so. America needs a robust missile defense program. Even with ballooning deficits and reckless waste at the Pentagon, we cannot afford to stand down.