Trump’s missile defense plan faces reality check

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President Trump’s grand plans for the next generation of missile defense don’t line up with his administration’s new Missile Defense Review, with many of his promised technologies still years away from fruition, missile defense officials and experts say.

Trump, in unveiling the long-overdue document this past week, said he would “accept nothing less” than cutting-edge missile systems likely to require billions of dollars in investments.

“Our goal is simple, to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” Trump told an audience at the Pentagon on Thursday while unveiling the report.

But officials have acknowledge that “some of those experiments” the president touted – including striking enemy missiles shortly after they launch or relying on space-based interceptors – wouldn’t be in use for at least a decade.

“There is a bit of a difference between the aspiration expressed by the president and what the missile defense review actually does,” said Tom Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think it’s important to not get taken by the speeches.”

One such difference was the highly talked up space-based missile defense layer, or the idea of using earth-orbiting interceptors to track and shoot down missiles. At the Pentagon, Trump and his acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan put an emphasis on the technology, speaking as though it was coming very soon.

“It’s ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense and obviously of our offense,” Trump said. “The system will be monitored and we will terminate any missile launches from hostile powers or even powers that make a mistake. It won’t happen, regardless of the missile type or geographic origins of the attack.”

Kingston Reif, a missile defense and budget expert with the Arms Control Association, said Trump’s goal “is not consistent with the text of the review.” 

“What Trump described as the goal has never been U.S. policy and for good reason,” Reif told The Hill. “Trying to develop such a comprehensive shield, a space wall, you might say, would be unaffordable, unachievable technically and massively destabilizing.” 

Pentagon officials later that day told reporters that the review does not commit to deploying interceptors in space, instead proposing a six-month study to assess the feasibility of doing so. 

Should Pentagon officials decide to move forward with the space layer, such a technology won’t be seen in use for another decade, according to John Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy.

“You’ll see experiments in 2021, 2022, on-orbit experiments with, I’ll say highly developed metal systems … and I think you’ll see operational systems in the mid and latter part of the 2020s,” Rood told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.

The long-awaited review — initially scheduled for release in late 2017 — will drive the administration’s Pentagon funding request for the fiscal 2020 budget. It also provides an outline for how the United States will deter and counter missile threats from Iran, North Korea, Russia and China as well as rouge nations.

“Obviously, the budget that will be rolled out is consistent with the Missile Defense Review,” Rood said. “Missile defense has … occupied a substantial portion of the Defense Department’s budget in the past and it will going forward.”

But the question remains of whether a Democrat-controlled House will readily fund the advanced technologies Trump seeks as they look to slash defense spending across the board.

Democrats are expected to be especially critical of pursuing the space-based interceptors and “for good reason,” Reif said.

Such a missile defense layer “would be extremely expensive,” far from technically proven and would also be “destabilizing in so far as Russia and China are likely to react negatively to such a deployment,” Reif told The Hill. 

The top Democrats from the House and Senate Armed Services committees indicated as such on Thursday.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House panel, said he worried that the review’s space interceptor plans could lead to wasted dollars. 

“While it is essential that we continue investing in proven missile defense efforts, I am concerned that this missile defense review could lead to greater investment in areas that do not follow these principles, such as a space-based interceptor layer that has been studied repeatedly and found to be technologically challenging and prohibitively expensive,” Smith said in a statement.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), meanwhile, said space-based capabilities “are certainly worth exploring,” but without unlimited resources Congress “must weigh investments among competing national security priorities.”

Even Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), a frequent advocate of missile defense, recognized the uphill funding battle the plan is likely to face. 

“It’s going to be a challenge, and the case for more interceptors is so compelling I don’t see how we can not go there – but not everybody agrees with me,” Rogers told Defense News.

Pentagon technology chief Michael Griffin argued that the cost of a space-based layer, to be reflected in the Defense Department’s fiscal 2020 budget request, is “not some outlandish number.”

“The first things that you’re going to see, the president specifically alluded to a space sensor layer that will provide, in wartime, the targeting ability we need and, in peacetime, the persistent, timely global awareness that we need,” Griffin told reporters alongside Rood.

Reif predicted that several questions would be raised – particularly by Smith – about greater emphasis on boost-phase defense.

The technology is meant to shoot down missiles, in particular those from North Korean, when they’re traveling at their slowest rate right after launch. Several reports have raised questions about the practicality and feasibility of the defense.  

“Democrats want to ensure that we’re not fielding new capabilities and new technologies before they’ve been tested under realistic conditions. So I think you’re likely to see calls for more rigorous testing.”

The United States has spent an estimated $300 billion-plus on countering any potential hostile missiles since the 1980s. The endeavor is an expensive one due to the technological difficulty in shooting an enemy missile out of the air. 

The Pentagon currently relies on a missile defense system made up of long-range, ground-based interceptors located at Fort Greeley, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, as part of the ground-based midcourse defense system (GMD). In addition, the U.S. uses interceptor missiles on Navy ships.

The GMD is meant to destroy an approaching warhead by firing interceptors from underground silos. The launched vehicle then releases a projectile meant to hit and destroy the warhead in mid-air.

But the system – in place since 2004 – is far from perfect and expensive to test. The most recent test in May 2017 was successful but cost nearly $250 million and followed several failed tries.

Missile Defense Agency head Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves tried to alleviate fears of faulty defense deterrents by insisting that the Pentagon won’t try to slap together a new system for the sake of the administration. 

“We will take a very disciplined, milestone-driven – those are very key words -data-rich decision-making process to get there,” Greaves said alongside Rood and Griffin.

And don’t expect unrealistic numbers when it comes to funding the review, Karako said. If the budget reflects the report as delivered instead of the president’s Pentagon speech, “I wouldn’t expect huge budgetary muscle movements,” he said.

Outside of the research and development work for the new technologies, the Trump administration report hews closely to the Obama-era Missile Defense Review, released in 2010, the plans of which Congress largely funded, he added.

“The 2018 report has fewer new programs and finishes much of what was proposed in the Obama era plan,” Karakosaid. 

The missile defense dollars have increased under Trump, most notably in late 2017, when the administration proposed an additional $4 billion for missile defense in the NDAA due to heightened tensions with North Korea. Congress funded the add with very little debate.

With a large Pentagon budget request expected in February – anywhere between $733 billion and $750 billion – Trump’s new technologies may very well get enough funding to launch. 

Tags Adam Smith Donald Trump Jack Reed Mike Rogers Patrick Shanahan

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