President Ronald Reagan cowed the Soviet Union and eventually brought its leaders to the bargaining table with the threat of a costly space-based nuclear missile system dubbed “Star Wars.” In March 1983, Reagan formally launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to develop and deploy an “impenetrable shield” to protect the U.S. from a Soviet missile attack.
Although the U.S. ultimately spent more than $200 billion on a system that was never successfully developed and deployed, Reagan’s high-stakes defense gambit was credited by many for helping to hasten the end of the Cold War.
Now newly inaugurated President Donald Trump may be trying to play a similar head game with North Korea’s 32-year-old leader Kim Jong Un. Kim recently declared that his rogue nation is in the final stages of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear tip capable of reaching parts of the United States.
“It won’t happen!” Trump tweeted Jan. 2 in a dismissive rejoinder to Kim, which he followed up with a sharp criticism of China, North Korea’s patron, for not doing enough to restrain Kim’s soaring nuclear ambitions.
Last Friday, shortly after Trump was sworn in as the 45th president, the new White House website declared in a policy statement that Trump will rebuild the U.S. military, boost its anti-missile capabilities and make it a top priority to defeat ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups. Now a new addition to Trump’s evolving defense posture, the website declared that the United States would develop a “state of the art missile defense system” to guard against attacks from North Korea, Iran, and other rogue states.
The announcement was bereft of details about the technical capabilities or the potential cost to taxpayers for a more sophisticated missile defense system than the land-based and seaborne systems currently deployed in California and Alaska and aboard Navy destroyers in the Pacific.
In addition to the missile shield, the Trump White House said a new military budget would be submitted to Congress outlining a plan to rebuild the military and increase cyber-warfare capabilities. “We will make it a priority to develop defensive and offensive cyber capabilities at our U.S. Cyber Command, and recruit the best and brightest Americans to serve in this crucial area,” the statement declared.
Since then, Trump and his aides have had little more to say about their proposed missile defense initiative, leaving defense policy experts to scratch their heads and speculate on what the new president has in mind. Some believe the U.S. doesn’t currently have a reliable system to deter North Korea’s emerging road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology from delivering nuclear warheads to the U.S. mainland, according to reports.
Trump once said that he would be happy to meet with Kim over hamburgers to try to reach an accommodation. Now that they are in power, Trump and his national security advisers are signaling they intend to take a much harder line with the unpredictable and highly dangerous North Korean dictator.
“Arguably you could say the only anti-ballistic system we have that has some proven track record of success is the sort of mid-course phase intercept system that is deployed in Alaska and California, which is targeted at the North Korean threat,” Gordon Adams, a military analyst and historian, said in an interview Monday.
“It’s basically a ground-launched missile system that is capable of taking out” North Korean missiles, and that has done reasonably well in tests. “I suspect it’s something that somebody else got to him on or got the White House’s agreement to put it on the website,” he added.
Beginning in the 1990s, the declared mission of SDI, which became known as the National Missile Defense (NMD) program, changed dramatically. It went from a “skies the limit” scientific and engineering venture to a more modest goal of preventing the United States from being subjected to nuclear blackmail or nuclear terrorism by a rogue state like North Korea or Iran.
Unlike the Star Wars program – which would likely cost $400 billion or more to replicate in today’s dollars – the NMD is not equipped to provide a robust shield against large attacks from a technically sophisticated adversary such as Russia. Moreover, it can’t handle enemy missiles with multiple warheads, according to Adams.
The NMD in time may become less useful as North Korea rushes ahead to develop a long-range nuclear missile program – one that would threaten Alaska and the West Coast, and that also poses a more immediate threat to neighboring South Korea and Japan. This may help to explain why Trump decided to sound the alarm and pledge a more up-to-date nuclear defense system last week.
Last month, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter called Kim’s New Year’s day ballistic missile threat serious. Carter said U.S. forces would shoot down any missile aimed at it or an ally.
At present, the U.S. has roughly 40 interceptor missiles deployed at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the Fort Greely Army launch site in Alaska, near Fairbanks. Their locations are optimized to defend against North Korea but with some capacity against possible future Mideast threats to the homeland, according to Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
“The success of those interceptors in tests has been mixed, so their likely effectiveness is uncertain,” O’Hanlon said in an email. “They are already being upgraded, and Trump could simply implement that plan and declare a measure of success. Or he might add other types of technologies too--which are better than they used to be but . . . still not all that great or promising.
Finally, Trump might hedge and improve the California/Alaska system while devoting more money for research and development for next-generation ideas without committing to any deployment yet. “I'd put my money on that last option based on the politics and the military/strategic dimensions of the situation,” O’Hanlon said.