''Hitting a bullet with a bullet" aptly describes the challenge of missile defense. North Korea's threats underscore the importance of this technology.
Other news overshadows but does not remove this threat. On April 26, Seoul announced 175 workers at the idle Kaesong industrial park in North Korea will be withdrawn. Pyongyang terminated cooperation early this month.
The Pentagon is expanding anti-ballistic missile defenses on the U.S. West Coast, and the Lockheed Martin THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) anti-missile system has arrived on Guam, a publicized potential target. In 2009, THAAD was sent to Hawaii during an earlier crisis with North Korea.
A somewhat comparable missile confrontation occurred during the final months in office of President George W. Bush. Plans were announced to deploy anti-ballistic missiles in Poland, with associated radar installations in the Czech Republic. In immediate response to this provocation, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev announced impending deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a forward area close to Western Europe.
In the fall of 2009, the new Obama administration announced the U.S. would rely instead on a mobile sea-based system, with land-based mobile radars. Conservative critics instantly charged this was appeasement. In fact, President Barack Obama made a good call.
There has been sustained pressure on Washington to develop missile defense for a half century, dating back to the Eisenhower administration. At that time, defense spending absorbed more than half the entire federal budget, and a larger percentage of gross national product than today.
Ike maintained control over the military primarily, though not exclusively, by putting a ceiling on the overall Pentagon budget, effectively setting the Air Force, Army and Navy against one another for available resources. One byproduct was considerable duplication of effort. Each service developed a separate strategic missile program, jealously guarding research and development information from the others.
New Kennedy administration Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was offended by the absence of administrative logic in this approach, and immediately imposed organization-chart order. The Air Force was given land-based strategic missiles, the Navy sea-based submarine system and the Army was removed from the game.
The secretary and his academic 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 unified the services against him. Ultimately the defense secretary suffered an emotional breakdown.
Meanwhile, the Army pressed successfully for an ABM role. President Lyndon Johnson generously named McNamara president of the World Bank but demanded he publicly support the ABM systems.
In the 1980s, 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, with Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger prime exponents.
The Bush Czech-Poland deployment was justified in terms of threats from Iran or other extremist states. Nuclear strategist Herman Kahn used exactly that argument in trying to bolster desolated Robert McNamara when the earlier ABM system was announced.
The radical rogue regime of North Korea, still committed to Cold War totalitarianism, is precisely the sort of threat Kahn had in mind.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of "After the Cold War." Email firstname.lastname@example.org.