As the U.S. starts to recover from the coronavirus it must not neglect the ongoing political competition in Asia, which hasn’t been working from home while Americans were worrying about hand sanitizer and social distancing.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020 continued Congress’s bipartisan support for effective missile defense but, as Michaela Dodge of the National Institute for Public Policy notes, the NDAA diverges from the Trump administration’s 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR) in that it “appears to discourage building missile defense capabilities against sophisticated threats” — i.e. Russia and China — and relegates it to countering “the developing and increasingly complex missile threat posed by rogue states” i.e., Iran and North Korea.
Though proponents of the line that Russia and China are deterred by strategic nuclear forces, while Iran and North Korea are deterred by missile defense, say the policy hasn’t changed, this creates a tiered system of threats that may eventually be reflected in different funding priorities.
General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, spoke of U.S.-based missile defenses and he was pretty clear: “They are built for North Korea, they’re not built for anything else.”
The nuclear forces the NDAA says are needed to deter Russia and China are strategic nuclear forces and comprise ballistic missiles launched from submarines and land-based silos, and nuclear weapons delivered by heavy bombers, such as the B-2 and B-52. These programs have significant constituencies in the military and industry, and on Capitol Hill, and will be framed as necessary to the administration’s policy of “great power competition,” giving them an edge in contests for budget dollars.
America’s ground-based missile defense is built around the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. It is comprised of 44 interceptors based at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenburg Air Force Base, California. Plans for another 20 GMD interceptors were scrapped in favor of a leap-ahead effort to develop and deploy the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) by 2030, but even that system will leave the Eastern seaboard undefended.
Development of NGI will have to manage both the technical risk and budget pressures due to the budgetary demands of stimulus spending to offset the effects of the coronavirus. If the schedule slips for financial or technical reasons, the U.S. may have to consider fielding more of the existing GMD vehicles. As slippage will likely happen, does the U.S. want to wait more than a decade when, in the near term, it could augment the existing GMD inventory with 20 more interceptors?
This uncertainty comes at a time when Iran and North Korea continue to develop their missile capability.
Iran recently announced it launched a satellite on a rocket powered by a second-stage solid fuel motor. What’s of concern is that the satellite launch was conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a designated terrorist organization, not Iran’s civilian space program.
North Korea continued its missile test program in 2019, conducting launches on ten separate occasions, usually involving more than one missile, and it “continues to openly threaten the United States with nuclear-capable ICBMs.”
America’s near-peer competitors, Russia and China, are developing hypersonic weapons with an eye to overwhelming any missile defense system the U.S. may field, and they have continued to refine their existing inventory of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The threat of an accidental launch from Russia and China is less than in Iran and North Korea, and, in Russia’s case, the risk can be further reduced by taking up Moscow’s offer to restart negotiations to renew the New START nuclear arms treaty.
The obscurantist regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang combine a blinkered view of the world with one-man rule, so there’s a greater chance a leader may strike because of a desire for revenge or a perceived opportunity. In the case of North Korea, the recent disappearance of leader Kim Jong-Un caused weeks of speculation about his health and the country’s leadership succession, underscoring how this nuclear-armed state relies on the health of one man, which does not make for a robust nuclear command and control system.
And though Russia and China have institutionalized launch procedures, the U.S. shouldn’t discount the possibility they might engage in a limited, coercive use of nuclear weapons to secure a political goal in Europe or Asia.
To reduce risk, the U.S. should consider adding additional GMD interceptors as a hedge against NGI schedule slippage. And it should use the 2021 NDAA to make it the policy of the United States that missile defense isn’t just a cure for “rogue state” misbehavior but will secure the U.S. homeland against adventurism or errors in Moscow or Beijing.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. 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. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized 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).