The United States has carried out a successful test of an advanced land-based anti-ballistic missile (ABM). This triumph on Dec. 10, quickly announced publicly by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, has remained largely under the radar of global media preoccupied with markets and trade conflicts, along with political debates largely removed from military defense and security. That is unfortunate.

A U.S. land-based Raytheon Aegis missile intercepted an intermediate-range ballistic missile in flight. The test occurred near Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. The highly sophisticated missile results from a large-scale joint project with Japan.

North Korea’s long-term development of weapons has heightened tensions in and around the Korean Peninsula. In response, the U.S. in 2009 deployed a Lockheed Martin THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) anti-missile system to protect Hawaii, a possible target. There have been similar tensions in Europe in relation to Russia.

In September 2017, the U.S. put a THAAD system in South Korea. THAAD has more limited area coverage than Aegis.

“Hitting a bullet with a bullet” is the way even proponents of anti-missile systems describe the extraordinary technical challenge. Yet there have been sustained pressures within the U.S. to build such weapons for more than a half century, dating back to the 1950s and the Eisenhower administration.

At that time, defense spending absorbed more than half the entire federal budget, and a much larger percentage of gross domestic product than today. President Dwight D. Eisenhower maintained control over the military primarily, though not exclusively, by putting an overall ceiling on the Pentagon budget, effectively setting the Air Force, Army and Navy against one another for available resources.

The efforts of the Army to remain a significant participant in atomic weapons at times took rather unusual forms. One of the most bizarre nuclear weapons ever developed was the M65 atomic cannon, nicknamed “Atomic Annie” for obscure reasons, though perhaps derived from the nickname “Anzio Annie” given to a pair of devastating German K5 guns deployed against the Allied invasion of Italy in World War II.

The U.S. first fielded the atomic cannon in 1953 and deployed the weapon in Western Europe and South Korea. The enormous size of the cannon may have intimidated Cold War opponents but definitely created public relations challenges for local U.S. Army personnel. Especially in West Germany, there were regularly complaints resulting from buildings and other structures sideswiped or crushed by the big gun.

One byproduct of the Eisenhower approach was considerable duplication of effort. Each service developed a separate strategic missile program, jealously guarding research and development information from the others.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the Kennedy administration was instantly offended by the lack of logic in this approach and decisively imposed organization-chart order. The Air Force was given land-based strategic missiles, the Navy sea-based submarine systems, and the Army was removed from the game.

The secretary and his civilian analysts also rejected arguments for anti-ballistic missiles because any conceivable defensive systems could be overwhelmed at relatively low cost by simply increasing the number of attack vehicles. Under then-prevalent U.S. strategic concepts, hardening missile sites was stabilizing but protecting populations was not. If a nuclear Pearl Harbor was being planned, there was no point in protecting missile launchers that would be empty.

McNamara’s policies and style quickly unified the services against him. The Army pressed successfully for an ABM role. When President Lyndon Johnson forced the secretary to resign, he made him president of the World Bank but also insisted on public support for the ABM.

President Ronald Reagan gave priority to exotic space-based missile interceptors, termed the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars.” The Air Force became the leading service but the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed the effort. Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger were prime exponents.

Anti-missile deployments in Asia and Europe are prudent given threats from North Korea and elsewhere. In the late 1960s, nuclear weapons strategist Herman Kahn emphasized dangers from such rogue states, partly to support the publicly humiliated McNamara.

Additionally, there are potential positive opportunities in the current missile situation. South Korea as well as Japan and the U.S. may develop expanded diplomatic as well as security cooperation, including and reaching well beyond North Korea.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.”

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