Last week, Huntsville, Alabama, hosted the 17th annual space and missile defense symposium.

The symposium is always a good barometer of the mood within the ballistic missile defense community. And while the mood this year was better than in previous years, it is clear that the ballistic missile threat is growing and that sequestration undermines a long-term viability of the nation’s missile defense plan.

Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), offered a great overview of the history and the development of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. GMD is the only missile defense system currently protecting the U.S. from a long-range ballistic missile threat. He noted that the errors in the system so far have not been complicated and have contributed to U.S. development of the system. It is important to keep in mind that a judgment on whether a test failed should be based on how much the U.S. managed to learn from the test, not on whether an intercept occurred.

General Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command, emphasized the need to “outpace the threat.” He also criticized the budget situation and said “it is impossible to make a strategic decision right now.” The Independent Quadrennial Defense Review Panel recently reinforced this notion.

Future missile defense concepts include new GMD kinetic kill vehicles, tracking and discrimination improvements, and a potential use of space-based lasers to aid tracking and discrimination. The MDA is also considering putting multiple kill vehicles on a single interceptor. It is essential that the nation plans for a defense posture that deters its adversaries, not a defense posture that is driven solely by the budget considerations.

The conference made clear that supporters of comprehensive layered ballistic missile defense will have to remain patient in the coming years. Elaine Bunn, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, said that there will be no major changes in U.S. missile defense policy for the foreseeable future. This is good in that the Administration can focus on missile defense policy implementation, including Aegis land-based missile defense sites in Romania and Poland.

However, missile defense is now underfunded compared to the Obama Administration’s first budget submission. In addition, the Administration canceled some of the programs that could put the U.S. ahead of the threat and on the path toward a truly comprehensive missile defense system, such as the Multiple Kill Vehicle, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, and the Airborne Laser.

If the U.S. wants to stay ahead of a ballistic missile threat, it will have to develop a space-based ballistic missile defense layer and make the current radars more capable and integrated. The U.S. has the technology to do it, and its adversaries are not timid. Protecting the homeland, forward-deployed troops, and U.S. institutions is an essential thing to do, even in a tight defense budget environment.

It was an honor for us at Heritage to be a part of the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville again.