In past elections, the Republican Party has carried the banner of missile defense — systems for intercepting nuclear warheads before they can strike their targets. It was Ronald Reagan, after all, who spent $200 billion on the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as “Star Wars.” Bill Clinton, on the other hand, slashed funding for the program and put off deploying a planned national missile defense system.
But, somewhat like the states of Nebraska and North Carolina, the true believers of missile defense now seem to be tilting toward the Democratic Party. At least that was the vibe last Friday at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, where the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance bunkered down at its annual awards lunch. Officially, MDAA is nonpartisan and nonprofit, seeking only to spread the good word about missile defense. Most of the luncheon’s non-MDAA guests came from the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin, or Lockheed Martin subcontractors.
Riki Ellison, the former NFL linebacker who founded the MDAA, praised Hillary Clinton’s knowledge of missile defense, diplomatic work with NATO, and help with putting Lockheed Martin’s Aegis systems into Eastern Europe and its THAAD system into Guam. An Aegis anti-missile installation is now online in Romania; another Aegis system, in Poland, is scheduled to go online in 2018. “I think Don[ald] Trump is naive on the issue still,” Ellison told me. “He needs to be educated, if he comes in … we don’t know what Donald Trump, how, you know, on any issue.”
Deployment of a national missile defense system was prohibited for many years under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. George W. Bush formally pulled out of the treaty in 2001.
Today’s systems are modest in comparison to the missile defense shield Reagan had imagined. They are designed to shoot down a few ballistic missiles before they can hit their targets. President Obama proposed a four-phase plan for European missile defense shortly after taking office, a scaled-back version of the Bush administration’s proposal. In a September speech, Trump tried to position himself as a champion of missile defense. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has issued multiple statements about building up missile defense in Israel, the Persian Gulf, and around the Pacific Rim. Clinton reportedly said she would “ring China with missile defense” in a 2013 speech.
“We’re the military,” Chris Johnson, a spokesperson for the Missile Defense Agency, said, when asked about the election. “Our job is to support whoever is elected.”
There’s a lot on the line for missile defense proponents: The president’s 2017 budget calls for $7.5 billion, a significant amount but also a reduction compared to prior years. On Friday, Vice Adm. James D. Syring, who leads the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, mentioned nuclear tests by North Korea, research by Iran, and “the continued pursuit of more capacity by nations who do not like us.” Against these threats, Syring said that he looked forward to more sales of missile defense systems to foreign governments, and a new $784 million Alaska radar now being developed by Lockheed Martin, which he called “the lynchpin for homeland defense and missile defense system for the next 40 years.”
Officially at least, the ground-based missile defense system meant to protect the United States is aimed at defending against attacks from “rogue” states, like Iran and North Korea. Nevertheless, one supporter of missile defense who spoke at Friday’s luncheon named both Russia and China as potential nuclear adversaries.
“Now we see Russia flexing its muscle in the Middle East, China flexing its muscle in the South China Sea,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Republican representing New Jersey’s third congressional district, home to a Lockheed Martin facility, which employs some 4,000 workers. “We are the best hope under God for this world today, and we therefore have to be the strongest nation on earth.” MacArthur has pushed to fund a new Aegis site on the East Coast, to complement existing stateside missile defense sites in Alaska, California, and a test site in Hawaii.
As MacArthur spoke about a world of pervasive, manifold threats, more than a dozen fearsome-looking sharks from Camden’s Adventure Aquarium floated in 550,000 gallons of water, immediately behind his head.
MacArthur, who was the only New Jersey congressman to attend the Republican National Convention in July, has endorsed Trump, but he appeared at a September fundraiser with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who spurned Trump’s vice presidential overtures in Cleveland and mocked Trump’s repeated suggestion that the November election will be “rigged.” At Friday’s lunch, MacArthur did not mention Donald J. Trump, who has questioned the wisdom of American support for NATO and talked openly about using the possibility of nuclear war as a bargaining chip.
Sitting beside Ellison and MacArthur at the head table was Rep. Donald Norcross, D-New Jersey. Norcross did not call Trump out by name, but he did seem to allude to his election threats: “How important it is — that peaceful exchange of power,” he said. “I was in Washington when President Obama was sworn in the first time and President Bush was leaving. It just brought such value to my heart that somebody who controls, really, the legacy of our civilization, peacefully turns it over under the great democracy we have.”
“I’m not here to talk about the election,” MacArthur told me, after the event. “We have countries that are rattling their sabers. We have rogue regimes. And we have quasi-states like ISIS, or individual cells that want to attack us.”
MacArthur declined to address Trump’s repeated threat not to concede the election should he lose.
“The American people are going to choose our leader in two and a half weeks,” he said. “I have no comment on that.”