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Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress that China is assisting North Korea with its missile program. The secretary’s admission came on the heels of the hermit nation’s internationally condemned test rocket launch.
Though the test launch failed, North Korea has promised that more tests — including a nuclear one — are to come. It’s therefore vital that the United States, in coordination with other developed powers, maintain defenses capable of protecting against the very real threat of a missile strike.
Fortunately, America has programs in place — including the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System — that can do just that.
But today’s economic realities have caused some to question whether we can afford such sophisticated systems — or whether missiles from rogue states even pose a threat.
Such thinking is naive.
Thirty-two countries have ballistic missiles. Nine have nuclear capabilities. Most don’t have weapons advanced enough to hit America — yet.
Many, including North Korea and Iran, are working hard to develop some.
Today’s rogue nations have no interest in conventional warfare with America.
The challenge, consequently, is maintaining missile defense systems that are effective, proven and financially prudent. The allied world’s response to North Korea’s launch serves as a case study in what such a system should look like.
Japan sent seven “Patriot” PAC-3 missile batteries to the region and set up a Patriot battery at the Defense Ministry compound in the heart of downtown Tokyo. South Korea also deployed Patriot missile batteries in strategic locations. And the United States positioned ship-borne SM-3 interceptor missiles to destroy the rocket, with Patriot batteries standing by if needed.
Obviously, the Patriot system serves a vital role in international security. It’s been the first line of defense against missile attack for decades. Patriot is particularly effective against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, unmanned aerial systems and enemy aircraft.
The Patriot system continues to serve this vital role because it’s continually upgraded. As retired Army Lt. Gen. Donald Lionetti has explained, the new and upgraded Patriot systems “incorporate the latest technologies to defeat the threat as it grows and emerges.”
When Patriot was first introduced, soldiers controlled it by pressing switches in front of cathode ray tube monitors — the old-fashioned computer screens with black backgrounds and green text. Today, Patriot is operated with touch-screen, high-definition computer monitors.
Patriot has also evolved to defend urban centers — a fact that I and hundreds of thousands of allies have witnessed firsthand.
I served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In March 2003, an Iraqi missile was launched against the American headquarters in Kuwait. A Patriot battery was able to quickly target and destroy the enemy missile, protecting the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Building a brand-new missile system is expensive. Upgrading existing Patriot systems is more economical. Patriot has the confidence of thousands of flight tests and combat experience behind it — and can be bolstered with modern technologies as they mature.
That’s the strategy the United States and our allies should follow when developing missile defense for the 21st century. It makes financial sense to build upon existing, proven frameworks — rather than spending billions of dollars on new systems that are untested and could prove ineffective.
Congress understands this. The House Armed Services Committee recently acknowledged both the effectiveness and flexibility of the Patriot system in a subcommittee report — and called on the Army to provide a plan for continuing investment and modernization of the platform.
The focus should be on keeping Patriot up-to-date. These systems are proven to work on the battlefield. Improving them requires substantially fewer resources than designing a new defense system from the ground up.
North Korea’s recent rocket launch may have failed — but that failure by no means marks the end of its drive to attain long-range ballistic missiles.
The good news is that the United States and our allies were ready to protect our assets. The strategy going forward is clear — preserve proven missile defense systems while affordably upgrading them as threats evolve.
Tim Glaeser is vice president for integrated air and missile defense business development at Raytheon, the prime contractor for the Patriot system. He has served with United States air defense forces in Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.