Time to rethink America’s growing missile threats

For decades, a key component of the United States national security strategy has been projection of military force. On short notice, U.S. forces could rapidly deploy combat power anywhere in the world and engage in military operations to stamp out potential conflicts, or deter them from ever happening at all.

But during conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, asymmetric threats from IEDs and smaller arms and munitions posed the most serious risks to our warfighters. Make no mistake, we will continue to face these asymmetric threats in future skirmishes, but as operations in Afghanistan wind down, it's time for requirements officials at the Pentagon to re-examine potential threats from missile attacks.

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The U.S. Missile Defense Agency reports there are more than 6,300 ballistic missiles outside of U.S., NATO, Russian and Chinese control. By 2020, that threat will likely increase to nearly 8,000, and be accompanied by improved enemy tactics, greater accuracy, range and countermeasures.

In July 2013, MDA director Vice Admiral James Syring testified to Congress that missile defense is becoming more challenging as countermeasures are developed. He cited remarks made by the Director for National Intelligence, who said he was increasingly concerned that technical advances are providing Iran “with the means and motivation to develop larger space-launch vehicles and longer-range missiles, including an ICBM.”

On October 31, 2013, the State Department Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, termed the threat from ballistic missiles as “very serious.”

The challenge is that while the threat is growing exponentially, the U.S. capacity to detect and intercept them is not keeping pace, and we are at risk of losing the technology edge we have enjoyed for decades. Congress and the Pentagon need to work together to reverse this alarming trend.

First, we must augment our nation’s ability to intercept short- and medium-range missile threats by acquiring additional interceptor batteries, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). These types of systems can take out ballistic missiles inside and outside the atmosphere, eradicating the threat before making landfall. Currently, the Army has activated only three THAAD batteries, with two more in delivery or contract stage of procurement. There is a clear need for more, a message echoed by Vice Admiral Syring this past summer.

In addition to mobile THAAD systems, MDA should consider increasing the number of longer-range interceptors, such as Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors, and adding site locations. The president’s decision to restore plans for 14 more GMD systems is a step in the right direction, but adding a third site could provide enhanced protection for the East Coast. The GMD is the United States’ only current capability to engage ICBMs in space in the mid-course of their trajectory.

The U.S. should also upgrade the naval component of its missile defense architecture. Currently there are 28 Aegis ballistic missile defense ships in operation, with 16 in the Pacific fleet and 12 in the Atlantic. These ships detect, track and destroy ballistic missiles of all ranges. However, the Navy’s fleet of Aegis cruisers and destroyers is aging, and at current capabilities we are unable to keep up with growing threats. Combatant commanders continue to request additional platforms. While MDA and the Navy have begun modernizing the fleet, additional Aegis ships are needed.

The Navy should also move forward and take its work on directed energy and transition it to a formal program of record. The Navy’s CNO, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, has taken some very positive steps: Earlier this year he ordered the Navy to deploy its prototype Laser Weapons System (LaWS) in the Arabian Gulf next spring for additional testing. Although LaWS can't yet bring down a missile, it can take out a UAV and defend against other threats, and researchers say they are getting closer to being able to apply this technology to missile defense.

Although interception is a crucial part of missile defense, systems are useless if we can’t see the threat. Early warning radar detection systems, such as the capability provided by the Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance (TPY-2) X-Band Radar, work in conjunction with existing missile systems. MDA originally budgeted for 18 TPY-2 radars, but due to cuts the military plans only to deploy just 12. Today, only five stand-alone systems are operational, including one test radar that will be pressed into service in Japan. That is far too few given the range of threats we face.

If the U.S. is going to protect Americans, our warfighters and allies from future threats, recommitting and reallocating resources to missile defense programs will show strong leadership and smart planning. We are vulnerable to missile attacks. We must act to eliminate that vulnerability.

Anderson is a former head of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command.