Missile defense programs have gained scant attention in the past decade as the U.S. has fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S. forces have faced little to no missile threat.
With the success of the Iron Dome missile defense system in Israel and the new defense strategy that shifts the focus to the Pacific, the spotlight is returning to missile defense.
The Iron Dome system shot down about 85 percent of the missiles Hamas lobbed at Israel in November. Its success has grabbed the attention of Pentagon leaders. Panetta said the U.S. military is considering whether to either develop a similar system or buy their own. Before, the U.S. had balked at the expensive price of the Iron Dome.
“We’re in the process of evaluating all of the requests by the different services with regards to what capabilities they want to have for the future. It has to be cost effective in today’s world. And that almost automatically means that we’d better look at all options before we come down and make a final decision,” Panetta said in November.
Iron Dome isn't the only reason for defense observers to refocus their attention on missile defense. The defense strategy laid out by the president last year often referred to as the Pacific pivot forces the U.S. to more seriously consider potential enemies that feature advance missile systems.
North Korea executed what was considered a successful ballistic missile test on Dec. 12 to the surprise of many U.S. defense leaders. The development of North Korea's missile program has made Japanese and South Korean leaders nervous. Continued progress will force the Pentagon's hand to improve the defense of these allies.
Army acquisition leader Heidi Shyu said her service will have to pay closer attention to missile defense as it focuses on the Pacific.
“The pivot tells me the next step the Army needs to go is figuring out how to address an environment that is more contested. That means we have to focus on cyber warfare, we have to focus on working in an electronic warfare environment,” Shyu said. “We have to focus on air and missile defense.”
China poses its own threats. The Chinese military features the carrier-kill missile forcing the Navy to consider its posture in the Pacific. It is a constant variable that must be considered when war-gaming the potential defense of Taiwan.
However, not every missile program is seeing greener pastures since the introduction of the new defense strategy. The Senate subtracted funding for Lockheed Martin's MEADS program from the 2013 defense budget.
MEADS is a program the Army had decided it would no longer purse, but had planned to finish the development phase in order to harvest technologies of Lockheed Martin's work. The Senate, however, chose to stop the program permanently. Italy and Germany had joined the U.S. on the international missile defense program.
As Pentagon leaders expect to see their budget strings continue to tighten, it will be interesting to watch how missile defense programs are treated. Often a target for cuts, missile defense programs could see a rise in investment.