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Current gaps in homeland missile defense need urgent attention

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In December 2019, as North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders gathered to commemorate its 70 birthday, they recognized China as the alliance’s significant security challenge, superseding violent extremism, transnational crime-terror networks, and even Russia, the global leader in nuclear warhead stockpiles.

The PRC arguably boasts the most potent military in the world after the United States and is tied with France for third in its nuclear weapons stockpiles — reportedly controlling around 300, although this is the official data. Many experts believe that Beijing has many more warheads.

Meanwhile, just a couple months prior to the NATO gathering, North Korea conducted a successful test of its submarine launched Pukguksong-3 ballistic missile, which is designed to be nuclear capable.

And even more recently, the Islamic Republic of Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at targets in Iraq, including the Ain al-Asad air base housing Iraqi and U.S. troops. The lack of U.S. deaths should not be mistaken for Iran’s military inefficacy — on the contrary — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) demonstrated restraint in their strikes avenging the killing of Quds Force leader General Qassem Soleimani for fear of provoking further escalation by the United States. The U.S. military, even with advance warning of the attack, lacked the sufficient anti-missile resources to protect its assets, and we’re fortunate no one was killed.

Recent events portend an accelerated global ballistic missile arms race.

The strategic respite we got after the collapse of the Soviet Union is long since over. Russia is leading the way with Avangard hypersonic boost glide vehicles allegedly capable of flying at Mach 27. It also claims to have developed a nuclear powered cruise missile codenamed SSC-X-9 Skyfall. It would therefore behoove the United States to revamp its aging and inadequate ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities to meet extant and growing challenges.

Today’s American missile defense networks — while undoubtedly the most sophisticated on earth — are still not sufficient to protect the homeland and assets abroad. A myriad of ballistic missile threats are out there today — be they from nuclear peers or rogue states.

In the face of limited resources, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has dedicated the past 20 years to developing America’s missile defense infrastructure based on the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI). These land-launched weapons, tipped with an explosive bullet or “kill-vehicle,” are designed to track and destroy incoming intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Currently, the United States has 44 interceptors in our arsenals based in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., aimed to protect against the threats coming from the west and north.

Surprisingly, there are no GBI assets deployed on the East Coast. This is a gaping hole in the U.S. nuclear security umbrella.

It’s true that the United States does possess mobile BMD with the Navy’s Aegis ship systems that are designed primarily for “mid-course” or tactical/short range defenses, but these systems are already stretched thin. As of FY2018, there were 38 Navy Aegis ships operating around the world, including to defend Europe from potential ballistic missile attacks from countries such as Iran, and in the Western Pacific to provide regional defense against potential ballistic missile attacks from North Korea. Aegis platforms communicate with so called ‘standard-missile’ family of weapons, the most advanced of which is the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) used for mobile BMD.

MDA is asking for $1.8 billion in FY2020 to finance its Aegis ship and Aegis ashore (Romania and Poland) programs and help bring the fleet to 54 vessels by FY2024. While these systems are designed for shorter range threats, they can also be used to take out ICBMs shortly after launch. Bolstering this pillar of America’s BMD is critical to the safety of U.S. assets at home and abroad.

The bulk of the U.S homeland’s missile defense lies in the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD) which is a combination of GBI’s, bases, and critical sensors. Efforts have been made to augment the GMD, including improvements to the ground-based interceptor’s kill vehicle, but so far little progress has been made.

The Obama administration cancelled a program in 2009 which would affix GBI’s with “multi-object kill vehicles” or MOKVs, allowing single interceptors to take out multiple incoming ICBMs. The next iteration of the MOKV, dubbed the “Redesigned Kill Vehicle,” was cancelled in 2019, and is now due to be replaced by the “Next Generation Interceptor.” The NGI represents a leap-frog in technology from the RKV, and is designed to both anticipate and counter the ballistic missiles threats over the next several decades. The NGI will be purpose-built to defeat missile swarm threats, decoys, jamming, and other countermeasures.

While this upgrade to America’s GMD is sorely needed, the NGI is not anticipated to be combat ready possibly until after 2030.

As we wait for NGI to become operational — and assuming the system is not cancelled — the United States faces at least one decade of heightened and unacceptable vulnerability. In the interim, the only responsible option for U.S. policy makers is to bolster the tried and true midcourse BMD systems like Aegis and the SM-3.

Nuclear weapons are one of the few true existential threats to the United States — we as a country cannot afford to balk at the cost of this vital defense.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Trade and Investment Center.

Tags Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System Ground-Based Interceptor Missile defense Missile Defense Agency NATO

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