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Drones Can Protect Us From Kim’s Missiles

Arthur Herman & Stephen C. Meyer

President Trump’s announcement that he will meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un caught everyone by surprise. The big question is: Will the meeting reduce the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles?

Given North Korea’s record of deceit, the president will need an insurance policy against Mr. Kim’s penchant for bad-faith negotiating, especially concerning his nuclear program.

Fortunately, Congress can make a down payment this week in its 2018 omnibus spending bill, and soon after when it authorizes the Pentagon’s 2019 budget. Lawmakers should appropriate funds for an innovative but inexpensive missile-defense system that can neutralize North Korean missiles using high-altitude drones.

The concept behind the proposed system is simple. It would deploy remotely piloted drones to target missiles early in flight while the missile booster engines are firing. During this early “boost phase,” the intense heat of the boosters makes missiles easier to detect.

Our existing ground-based missile-defense systems are designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles during the later phases of flight. But missiles become harder to detect and destroy during later phases because they are colder, smaller, faster and capable of evasive countermeasures. Thus adding another layer of defense makes obvious sense.

The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency recognizes the need for boost-phase intercept capability and is developing a laser-based system. But the agency acknowledges it won’t be ready to implement until 2023 at the earliest. A drone-based boost-phase system can be developed within 18 months—soon enough to make a difference in the current standoff with North Korea.

Here’s how the new system would work: Drones would circle above the Sea of Japan at roughly 45,000 feet for shifts of up to 20 hours. Detection systems the Air Force already uses on surveillance drones would pick up North Korean missiles soon after launch. Once operators identify a missile on a dangerous course, new high-speed missile interceptors launched from the drones would destroy the ICBMs during the boost phase—ensuring that any debris would fall onto or near North Korean territory.

Though Congress has authorized developing a “boost-phase defense” for the Pacific region “at the earliest practicable date,” it has yet to appropriate funds for a drone-based system. Lawmakers should close this gap without delay by specifically appropriating discretionary funds from the 2018 supplemental appropriation for missile defense to build such a system. To prevent delays, Congress should also extend that funding with another specific appropriation for 2019. The new system would cost only $100 million to develop—about 1% of the Missile Defense Agency’s annual budget.

Coincidentally, the March 23 budget deadline marks the 35th anniversary of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative speech. Congress can take an important step toward realizing Reagan’s dream by funding a new layer of missile defense—one tailored to protect our cities from Kim Jong Un’s increasingly menacing ballistic missiles.