Panel looks at missile threats, defense challenges
By Dana Williams
The rise of new powers in the world and the collapse of Cold War treaties has spawned a new missile age with increasingly sophisticated weapons, panelists said during a July 28 discussion hosted by the Pacific Center for Island Security.
“In the past year we in Guam and the surrounding island region have been the subject of many plans involving great power competition between the United States and China,” moderator Robert Underwood said. “As U.S. citizens and as islanders, these plans directly impact all of us.”
The panelists, Laura Grego, a senior scientist and research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Matt Korda, a senior research fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, discussed the challenges involved in creating a missile defense system for Guam.
Underwood, a former delegate to Congress, is the chair of the Pacific Center for Island Security. He has been a critic of the proposed 360-degree missile defense system for Guam, and he has said the community needs more transparency from the Department of Defense.
“It's critical that we yet take another look at Guam's role in this, not as pawns or as a community to be informed, but as knowledgeable partners, much more than in the past,” he said. “We must be knowledgeable about defense planning, geopolitical trends, missile and anti-missile technology.”
Korda explained that there has been a blurring of the lines between ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.
“What we're seeing is that most modern missiles are capable of some form of guided or maneuverable flight after the end of their first phase of flight finishes,” he said, which makes defense against these missiles more complicated.
China and North Korea are also developing hypersonic glide missiles “that travel through the atmosphere on a very maneuverable flight path at very high speeds. In theory, this makes them much harder to intercept,” he said.
Korda said there are three things fueling advancements in missiles: improvements in technology, including new materials, the prestige associated with building more sophisticated missiles, and the need to stay ahead of rival nations by creating missiles “specifically designed to circumvent missile defenses.”
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“It's really important to recognize this sort of action-reaction dynamic that we typically see when countries do something to potentially increase their own security,” he said. “But the cost of that is then other countries will take their own measures that try and circumvent those initial moves.”
Grego described missile defense systems that could be used to thwart attacks by shorter-range conventional missiles, which are likely to be a concern on Guam.
She said the Patriot missile defense system is used to defend against short-range ballistic missiles and medium-range threats.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD system, defends against short-range ballistic missiles, medium and intermediate threats using guided interceptors.
“The third, the most relevant system that we would talk about, is the Aegis system, and that's one that's fielded by the Navy,” she said. While usually found on ships, there is also a land-based variation.
“These are all existing systems, although, of course, they haven't been ever put together in a specific way to defend a place like Guam,” she said.
She said there are three ways missile defense systems can be defeated.
“They can be overwhelmed in numbers. They can be avoided by having something that maneuvers around them. And they can be attacked directly by something that is designed to target those missile defenses themselves.”
Underwood said the head of the Missile Defense Agency has stated the threat to Guam could involve anything from drones to ballistic missiles, cruise missiles or hypersonic glide missiles. He asked Grego what it would take to defend the island against such an attack.
“What you described is an enormous laundry list of everything that could possibly be done, right? So it creates a very formidable challenge for any kind of defensive system,” she said. “I would be, of course, alarmed hearing that list of things that you try to defend against, so I would say it would be very hard to do something like that.”
The MDA has scheduled a series of public scoping meetings on Guam to inform residents about the defense proposal and accept comments on the plan.
Representatives will be available to provide information from 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Guam Hilton’s Micronesian Room, Aug. 3 on the second floor of Micronesia Mall next to Macy’s Women’s store and Aug. 4 at the Hagat Mayor’s Office Community Center.
The plan can be viewed at mda.mil/system/eiamd.html, and comments will be accepted until Aug. 18.