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June 2, 2022
Hill to Fix, Not Expand, Missile Defense
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Tom Z. Collina

Congress voted in December to drop a controversial proposal to build a new missile defense interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast, agreeing instead to spend more to fix problems with the existing system, which has failed in its last three intercept tests.

The new policy is included in the final $625 billion National Defense Authorization Act, signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 26. The legislation authorizes raising federal spending on missile defense by $358 million to $9.5 billion for the fiscal year that began last Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30.

The final bill dropped a measure approved by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which called for spending $140 million on a new missile interceptor site on the East Coast. Instead, the final legislation authorizes $190 million to upgrade the existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system to counter long-range ballistic missiles. The GMD system is currently operational at one site each in Alaska and California. That system, first deployed in 2004, had its last successful intercept test in 2008, failing twice in 2010 and again last July.

In interviews Dec. 16-17, senior congressional staffers from both parties described the new approach as a bipartisan agreement to upgrade the current system rather than build a new site. Given the problems with the GMD system, Congress has decided to “fix what we’ve got,” said one senior Republican staffer. He said that the administration’s initial budget request to Congress did not include enough money to fix the system’s inadequacies.

The House approved its version of the defense bill June 14 with a requirement that the Defense Department establish an East Coast missile interceptor site by 2018. The Senate version, passed by the Armed Services Committee on June 13, contained no such provision. The bill did not receive a vote by the full Senate.

Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), wrote to the Senate on June 10 that there was no military requirement for an East Coast site. Syring said he would rather invest funds in new sensors that could help the existing system distinguish real targets from fake ones. (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

The system’s ability to tell the difference between real and fake targets is critical because an attacker’s warheads would likely come surrounded by debris and decoys. In congressional testimony last May, Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational testing, said, “If we can’t discriminate what the real threatening objects are, it doesn’t matter how many ground-based interceptors we have; we won’t be able to hit what needs to be hit.”

Noting that Senate Republicans did not have the votes to mandate an East Coast site, the Republican staffer said that a new site should not be established until the system’s performance can be improved through upgrades to sensors and kill vehicles, the devices that sit on top of interceptor missiles and are supposed to collide with an enemy warhead in space. It is not clear that such upgrades would be achievable by 2018, according to the staffers.

To address Syring’s call for better sensors, the defense act authorizes $30 million as a down payment on the deployment of an additional “long-range discriminating radar” to track missiles launched from North Korea. The new radar would likely be located in Alaska, according to the congressional staffers. The act also says that the secretary of defense should be prepared to field additional sensors near the East Coast by 2019 if a future long-range missile threat emerges from Iran. Unlike North Korea, Tehran has not tested a long-range missile that could reach the United States, although it reportedly sent a monkey into space Dec. 14.

New Radar, Kill Vehicle

In addition to $30 million for the radar, the defense act authorizes $80 million to fix problems that caused the most recent GMD test failure last July, $50 million for better capabilities to distinguish real warheads from fake ones, and $30 million to develop a better kill vehicle. The act allocates $20 million for studying a possible new interceptor site on the East Coast.

Reflecting the MDA’s desire for a more reliable and capable kill vehicle, the act requires the agency to prepare a plan this May to “develop, test, and deploy” an upgraded kill vehicle to be fielded in 2018 or later that can pick out “lethal objects.” This effort is expected to eventually cost up to $150 million per year, according to the Republican staffer.

The Pentagon announced last March that it intends to increase the number of U.S. interceptors from 30 to 44 by 2017, with the additional 14 to be placed at Fort Greely in Alaska. Before that can happen, the interceptor must be successfully tested, according to the Defense Department. The next intercept test is planned for this spring. (See ACT, September 2013.) These additional 14 interceptors have already been purchased, so they would not include the proposed upgrades, the staffers said.

House Provisions Diluted

Like the requirement for an East Coast missile defense site, other aspects of the original House bill were watered down in the final version of the legislation. For example, the House bill would have blocked reductions required by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) until the Pentagon submitted an implementation plan, and it said that reductions below the levels specified in New START could be carried out only under a formal treaty approved by Congress. Obama called for such reductions in a speech last June.

In contrast, the compromise bill allows the Pentagon to prepare for New START reductions, which do not have to be completed until 2018. In addition, the bill expresses only the nonbinding “sense of Congress” that further arms reductions “should” be “pursued through a mutually negotiated agreement” with Russia under the president’s “treaty-making power.”

The defense bill language authorizes about $30 billion more than Congress will be allowed to appropriate under the terms of a bipartisan budget agreement approved in December. Appropriators must decide which programs to cut back by Jan. 15, when the current budget agreement expires.