Monday, July 22, 2019

Back to the Future of Missile Defense

Back to the Future of Missile Defense

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Michaela Dodge
July 22, 2019
Thirty-six years ago, the United States embarked on a serious effort to render the threat of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles “impotent and obsolete.” Despite some progress, however, we are not significantly closer to that goal today than we were in 1983. What does the future hold for the development and advancement of the U.S. missile defense program?

How the Past Has Shaped the Present
President Ronald Reagan made protecting the U.S. against Soviet nuclear-armed ballistic missiles one of the U.S. defense establishment’s organizing principles. He launched a family of missile defense programs under the umbrella of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). These programs built upon existing U.S. missile defense efforts, which had been constrained by the limitations in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. We continue to reap the fruits of those intellectual (if not technical) efforts today. Moreover, missile defense will likely continue to be a prominent aspect of U.S. defense policy.

Regrettably, the threat of ballistic missile attacks on the United States, our forces, allies, and partners will not diminish anytime soon. These missiles have attributes that make them prized strategic possessions for many states and even non-state actors. Ballistic missiles are prized as tools of power projection and coercion because they can attack quickly, are relatively cheap as compared to the damage they can cause, and are difficult to intercept. Continued increases in the sophistication of ballistic missiles, as well as their decreased costs, will undoubtedly help to shape future security environments.

Thanks to our adversaries, however, we no longer have the luxury of being able to worry only about ballistic missiles. The threat today includes missiles that do not fly on ballistic trajectories, including hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles. Missiles can be armed with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, possess stealthy characteristics, maneuverable reentry vehicles, decoys, and jammers – all of which complicate U.S. efforts to intercept them. In recognition of these developments and expanding threats, the Trump administration’s congressionally mandated review of U.S. missile defense policy was titled the “Missile Defense Review (MDR)” rather than the Obama-era “Ballistic Missile Defense Review.”

However, disagreements over the technical feasibility of missile defenses that plagued the SDI effort are largely gone today. U.S. missile defense interceptors now have a proven track record. Admittedly, it is not perfect, but such is always the case with extremely complicated and technologically challenging systems. And U.S. missile defenses are getting better every day.

After all, the goal of our efforts is to hit an incoming missile traveling thousands of miles an hour with a relatively small kinetic kill vehicle. Decades ago, the technology to accomplish this feat did not exist, and the United States had to rely on nuclear-tipped interceptors. At that time, some thought that non-nuclear, hit-to-kill intercepts would never be possible. Today, the debate about U.S. missile defense programs centers largely on whether they are feasible in the context of strategic relations with other nuclear-armed states, particularly Russia and China, and whether the price of these systems is worth it in an era of decreasing defense budgets. Discussions about costs associated with the system will continue to be prominent, particularly as we face potential sequestration this fall under the Budget Control Act.

U.S. policy has required missile defense systems to be “cost-effective at the margin.” Generally, that means that the cost of the interceptor should be comparable to the cost of the incoming missile. But over time, we have come to realize and appreciate the deficiencies of this component of the so-called “Nitze criteria.” Missile defense interceptors are much more expensive than ballistic missiles, but we do not question why policemen wear bulletproof vests even though a bullet is much cheaper than the vest.
We have seen a real-life demonstration of the benefits that missile defenses bring to policymakers and to populations terrorized by missile and rocket attacks. The Israeli experience with the Iron Dome system illustrates that what matters is the value of what is being protected, not just how much an interceptor costs relative to an incoming missile. Missile defenses give a government additional time to consider the least escalatory steps in a crisis in which an adversary uses ballistic missiles in an effort to escalate a conflict, potentially averting a hot war with many more casualties. Missile defense may never be able to catch up with missiles in terms of costs, but future advanced technologies and miniaturization certainly have the potential to put missile defense in a more favorable position on the cost curve.

An Imminent Reckoning
Yet U.S. policymakers will soon face a missile defense reckoning. Today, we agree on a bipartisan basis that we need to defend the U.S. homeland from Iranian or North Korean missiles. As the missile capabilities and technologies of those two regimes become more advanced, our missile defense systems will have to evolve to address them if we do not want to open ourselves up to blackmail. In addition, this inexorable evolution might eventually give our missile defense systems capabilities against Russian and Chinese missiles. The Trump administration’s MDR explicitly rejects accepting limits on U.S. homeland missile defense systems to counter North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles, even if those defense systems might have some capability against other states’ ballistic missiles.

President Trump was even more forward-leaning in his remarks announcing the MDR at the Pentagon in January 2019, when he said, “My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer. It’s new technology. It’s ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense and, obviously, of our offense. The system will be monitored, and we will terminate any missile launches from hostile powers, or even from powers that make a mistake. It won’t happen. Regardless of the missile type or the geographic origins of the attack, we will ensure that enemy missiles find no sanctuary on Earth or in the skies above.”(1) But any such lofty plan must be backed by resources; otherwise, it remains just a statement.
The President’s declaration also highlights an important contradiction in today’s U.S. missile defense policy. If we are truly in an era of great-power competition with China and Russia, as the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy declares2, our missile defense policy should reflect that. It must translate into investment in capabilities that can address large, sophisticated Russian and Chinese ballistic missiles. As President Reagan asked on another occasion, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?”

Yet having a sound missile defense policy is just a starting point – necessary but not sufficient by itself. We need to back this policy with investments. The MDR came out too late to have a significant influence on the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget request for the Department of Defense, and that could explain deficiencies in terms of building missile defense systems for the future as far as this budget cycle is concerned. The MDR was supposed to be released in the Fall of 2017, but it was delayed for more than a year, not coming out until January 2019 and largely missing an opportunity to impact the FY 2019 and FY 2020 budget cycles.

Shooting down Russian and Chinese missiles, ballistic or not, means increasing investments in advanced technologies, including directed energy missile defense concepts, defenses against hypersonic weapons, and space-based interceptors. The United States must invest in boost-phase missile defense because that is where missiles are the slowest and have not yet deployed decoys and countermeasures. Regrettably, the boost phase of flight is also the shortest and consequently most technologically challenging phase in which to conduct an intercept.

Missile Defense Policy for the Near Future
Even before we get to technologically advanced programs and concepts, however, there are steps the United States can and should take to improve the existing missile defense architecture. The United States should make existing missile defense capabilities more effective. We can accomplish that by improving the quality of the data fed into our existing sea-based and ground-based missile defense architecture. The best way to get this done is to develop a space-based sensor layer. Not only do space-based sensors “see” more than ground-based sensors do, but they are also, relatively speaking, less vulnerable to adversary attacks.

The President’s FY 2020 budget request, however, allocates only $15 million for “a prototype proliferated Low Earth Orbit communications and data transport layer.” That is simply not enough to make any meaningful advancement on this important issue. The lack of funding is even more surprising when one considers that successive directors of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the agency responsible for missile defense research and development, have all strongly emphasized the need to improve U.S. cueing and tracking data.

Additionally, the United States can explore options to increase the capability of the existing family of interceptors. For FY 2020, the MDA is requesting a mere $14 million for the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle program, which is designed to allow a single interceptor to destroy more than one incoming object. That is not a significant amount of funding for a program that is simply common sense and that should have been pursued consistently since President George W. Bush’s abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.

If the United States truly is serious about great-power competition with Russia and China, and about defending against their long-range ballistic missile arsenals, it will have to increase both its investment in and the capabilities of more than just large ground-based interceptors. This is not to say that the United States should cease all investments in its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, but GMD interceptors today are simply too expensive and too vulnerable to a potential Russian or the Chinese attack.

If we are serious, we will increase investments in space-based capabilities and future missile defense technologies, including directed energy weapons. Finally, we will make it an explicit U.S. policy to defend against any ballistic missile attacks, just as President Trump, speaking at the Pentagon, said he would. Unless we take these steps today, our missile defense future will be bleak.

(1) “President Trump Remarks on Missile Defense Review,”, January 17, 2019,

Michaela Dodge, Ph.D., is a Research Scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy. Previously, she served as Senior Defense Advisor for Senator Jon Kyl in the fall 2018 and a Research Fellow for Missile Defense and Nuclear Deterrence at The Heritage Foundation.

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