A new missile defense policy for the new year

This year, the new Congress can advance American security by changing the direction and focus of U.S. missile defense policy.  It should seize the opportunity.   

The Obama administration sees robust defenses to protect American citizens from missile attack as “destabilizing.”  Consequently, U.S. missile defenses focus primarily on protecting deployed forces and allies against regional threats.  Homeland missile defense efforts remain centered on defense against limited attacks from nations with the least substantial ballistic missile capabilities, like North Korea and Iran – while leaving Americans vulnerable to nuclear annihilation from the more substantial missile forces of Russia and China, all in the name of preserving “stability.”  Recent events, however, suggest it is time to rethink this approach. 

China has successfully tested ICBMs with multiple warheads and a hypersonic strike vehicle intended to counter U.S. missile defenses, boasting of its ability to rain nuclear destruction on American cities.  Russia is building more nuclear weapons, modernizing its entire strategic nuclear arsenal as its top military priority, and conducting Cold War-style simulated strategic force attacks on the West.  Russia’s foreign policy is increasingly anti-American, its new military doctrine cites NATO as the “main threat,” it is violating arms control treaties, and has threatened its neighbors with nuclear attack.  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea are hardly stabilizing actions.  

Yet the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) continues to pursue a “business as usual” approach to defending the homeland.  For example, Vice Adm. James Syring, the MDA Director, said that Russia’s behavior and strategic force modernization efforts have no impact on U.S. missile defense plans, noting, “Our policy hasn’t deviated at all.  Our focus remains the regional threats.”    

Countering regional threats is important, but protecting the homeland should be accorded at least equal priority.  Congress has an opportunity this year to rebalance MDA’s approach.  One of the most important ways it can do this is by ensuring that problems with the Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) on the current generation of Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) are fixed.  While MDA appears eager to move forward with development of a new common kill vehicle – a worthy goal in itself – such an approach will take more time, cost more money, and create more risk than redesigning the current EKV.  Unfortunately, the evolution of ballistic missile threats does not afford us the luxury of waiting for a perfect solution.  

Fortunately, we know how to fix this problem, and can apply lessons learned from successes with other interceptor programs, most notably the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), which has an exemplary track record scoring successful intercepts in 80 percent of its tests.  Redesigning the GBI’s kill vehicle to incorporate the most successful hardware and technology from the SM-3 program has clear advantages over developing a new kill vehicle from scratch.  

Improving the reliability of the EKV is an immediate problem that needs to be addressed quickly.  Yet MDA has indicated it will scrap plan to do so if sequestration kicks in again.  Sequestration should be overturned, but it should not be used as an excuse to avoid necessary actions. 

Other actions Congress should consider to improve our missile defense posture include: 

•         Investing in technologies for boost-phase defense – including space-based interceptors – that provide the most cost-effective means of countering ballistic missiles soon after launch.  The Obama administration curtailed the most promising boost-phase intercept programs, leaving the United States with no way to shoot down ballistic missiles during their most vulnerable stage of flight.

•         Augmenting the Ground-based Mid-course Defense (GMD) system in Alaska and California with a third interceptor site.  The planned deployment of 14 additional GBIs and enhancement of the sensors they rely on are useful but insufficient steps.   

•         Accelerating the GMD test program.  Vice Adm. Syring says the GMD program should conduct at least one flight test annually to maintain momentum.  But last June’s successful GMD test occurred after a nearly three-year hiatus and the next planned test is not scheduled until the end of 2016.  

Critics will wrongly argue that a more robust missile defense approach is strategically unwise and fiscally irresponsible in an era of budget austerity.  Potential adversaries would like nothing more than to see the U.S. self-deterred in responding to the growing missile threats they pose due to exaggerated concerns over “stability.”  And the costs of effectively defending the nation from missile attack pale in significance to the potential costs of failing to do so. 

U.S. missile defense policy is at a crossroads.  We can continue to act as if nothing has changed in recent years or we can chart a new course that more appropriately emphasizes defending Americans against the growing threat of ballistic missile attack. 

So long as the administration appears comfortable with the former approach, it will be up to Congress to strike a more prudent balance.

Trachtenberg is president and CEO of Shortwaver Consulting.  He was principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Policy in the George W. Bush administration and was head of the policy staff of the House Armed Services Committee.


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