Missile defense must prioritize homeland defense

Missile defense must prioritize homeland defense
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The Trump administration and the Congress responded to North Korea’s ballistic missile tests by increasing the original missile defense budget for fiscal year 2018 by an additional $368 million. This action is welcome, but much of America’s planned missile defense spending is allocated to costly interceptor systems located overseas, which are designed to intercept missiles at the beginning or end of their flight.

There has been recent growth in missile defense sites overseas. Romania is a new host to a missile interceptor site, and Poland will host a site in 2018. Aside from a significant financial commitment from the U.S., a lot of diplomatic effort is required to negotiate the deployment of missile defense systems, and the supporting troops and contractors, to foreign soil.

The systems deployed overseas are designed to intercept missiles either prior to or after the midcourse phase of their flight. Destruction of a missile early in its flight should be a good thing, but destruction of a missile carrying a nuclear warhead at a low altitude greatly increases the chance that the population and infrastructure of the defender or a friendly neighbor will be damaged by missile debris or radioactive material from the warhead. In addition, the local commander must have the ability and authority to correctly identify and destroy a target less than a minute after launch.


A missile defense system deployed to a foreign country will also have to contend with the reasonable demand by the host nation for a say in a launch decision, which may not be practicable in a fast-moving situation, and is known as “dual key.” The host nation wants a vote because, by hosting the launch site, they will also be going to war against the country that launched the missile at the U.S.


Other solutions, like parking a ship equipped with the Aegis Combat System off the coast of North Korea, then hoping the Kim regime obliges us by launching a missile that can be chased down by the interceptor missiles, will put even more stress on our Navy, which has too few ships and too many missions. And stationing a ship off the North Korean coast may provoke the launch the U.S. is trying to avoid.

Defending against nuclear-armed ballistic missiles by using Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) to destroy them in the middle of their flight is less risky to our population and property as the debris will likely land in the ocean. And hitting an incoming missile at a longer distance allows time to correctly assess the flight path and for a second volley, known as “shoot-look-shoot,” if the first interceptor misses its mark.

So, a mid-course intercept option puts decisions about America’s defense solely in American hands, saving joint efforts with our allies for those efforts that are best approached collaboratively. We should take the opportunity to co-invest in critical missile defense R&D with our allies, but our hardware dollars are best invested in missile defense assets on American soil.

As 2018 begins, America’s inventory of interceptor missiles in American GMD sites totals 44. Due to a planned test this year, there will soon only be 43. The law mandates that there be no fewer than 43 interceptor missiles on the ground, so if disaster strikes, we may not have enough GMD interceptors when one might make the difference between success and a disaster that may change America forever, and not for the better.

Administration policymakers should work with the Congress to boost funding for GMD which is the best option for homeland defense, is in consonance with the goal of enhancing missile defense as outlined by the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” and strengthens our alliances by focusing joint attention the best win-win solutions.

James D. Durso (@James_Durso) is the managing director at consultancy firm Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as supply officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).