The need to stay ahead of the threat on the world stage from rogue nations, political and economic organizations, and non-state actors that include terrorists is driving the U.S. missile defense program as the nation focuses on defending its borders, its allies and its troops, said the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

Speaking to participants at the 12th annual Space and Missile Defense Conference at the Von Braun Center on Aug. 18, Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton said the U.S. is operating in a "multi-polar environment with new threats and adversaries that challenge us. It makes us look at offense and defense in a different light."

Chilton, a veteran astronaut of three space flights and the first former astronaut to receive four-star rank, is responsible for the global command and control of U.S. strategic forces to meet decisive national security objectives. The Strategic Command provides a broad range of strategic capabilities and options for the president and secretary of defense. STRATCOM mission areas include full-spectrum global strike; space operations; computer network operations; Department of Defense information operations; strategic warning; integrated missile defense, global command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; combating weapons of mass destruction; and specialized expertise to the joint war fighter.

Chilton said the world threat has changed greatly since the early years of missile defense. In the late 1960s and early '70s, missile defense focused primarily on countering the Russian threat and maintaining world stability. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan continued that strategy while also working to decrease the threat of nuclear warfare by reducing the "incredibly large numbers of nuclear weapons we had facing each other."

But strategies and focus shifted with the end of the Cold War and, in 1991, Operation Desert Storm ushered in a new era of threats and conflicts.

"We had another reason for good capabilities of missile defense and that was pushing troops forward," Chilton said, adding missile theater defense gained strategic implications during Operation Desert Storm.

Through the '90s and early 2000s, as other nations developed their offensive and defense capabilities, the U.S. had to evolve the way it looked at its deterrents and threats. North Korea's development of its own ballistic missile program gave the rogue nation the capability to "blackmail" the U.S., he said.

"They could dissuade us from participating in a conflict in Asia by holding at risk a U.S. city," Chilton said. "That motivated us in that strategy period to move forward with a missile defense system deployed against North Korea."

In addition, Iran was developing its own ballistic missile program and nuclear weapons program.

"We have to stay ahead of the threats," Chilton said. "The need to anticipate is still very real and staying ahead of the threat is still real. Staying ahead of the threat is important to our homeland and also to our allies and our field forces. This is a different global environment than the Cold War."

Today, U.S. missiles are not aimed at Russia and China.

"Our capability today cannot and should not hold their strategic forces at risk," Chilton said, adding that stability between the nations will keep them from instituting a first strike.

At the same time, the U.S. doesn't want to put its adversaries in a position where they think they must strike or lose their advantage. For example, he said Russia's "distrust of us kind of leaps out" when there is discussion of placing U.S. nuclear-capable missiles in Europe. But, at the same time, the U.S. has determined these missiles are needed to deter the Iranian threat against Europe as well as Russia.

"We must walk a fine line as we deploy missile systems," Chilton said.
The commander went on to say he is "amazed at the capabilities that have been fielded at the speed they have been fielded" during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He said those missile systems provide the support and credibility Soldiers need to serve as a deterrent to aggressors around the world.

"Our continued testing and validation of missile defense is very important to maintain that credibility," Chilton said. "A good defense requires a good offense."

Looking toward the future, Chilton said sensors are needed for global and persistent mid-course tracking. He said sensors need to have a dual role in space situational awareness and space surveillance.

"We need to merge missile defense sensors and space sensors and Cold War sensors. We need to merge data, fuse it together to allow commanders to make decisions in real world time," he said.

The U.S. must continue to develop and test new missile defense programs that can respond to threats worldwide.

"It is absolutely imperative that we maintain a technical edge if missile defense is going to remain a valuable deterrent," Chilton said.

"These are incredibly hard problems. But I'm convinced, after watching the miraculous deployment of missile defense, that we can do this. There's not a challenge we cannot conquer. Missile defense is an invaluable part of our strategic defense."