"...the Arms Control Association [does] so much to keep the focus on the issues so important to everyone here, to hold our leaders accountable to inspire creative thinking and to press for change. So we are grateful for your leadership and for the unyielding dedication to global nuclear security."

– Lord Des Browne
Vice Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative
October 20, 2014
Missile Defense Budget Holds Steady

Eric Auner

The recently unveiled budget for the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) focuses on restoring confidence in the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system while keeping other aspects of the Obama administration’s ballistic missile defense plans moving forward. The administration’s missile defense budget request for fiscal year 2015 came in at $8.5 billion, including $7.5 billion for the MDA, representing a stable funding level compared to previous years despite cuts in other parts of the defense budget.

Congress appropriated $7.6 billion for the MDA for fiscal year 2014.

In the March 4 press conference announcing the budget, MDA Director Vice Adm. James Syring said that the MDA will invest approximately $100 million to “initiate the redesign” of the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) kill vehicle, the part of the interceptor designed to seek out and destroy an incoming missile with a kinetic impact. A separate line item of around $26 million is devoted to “common kill vehicle technology,” which will be used to “breed the technologies and improvements” for the GBI kill vehicle and potentially other interceptors such as the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), Syring said.

The GMD system has not had a successful intercept test since 2008, and the two currently deployed versions of the GBI kill vehicle, the CE-I and CE-II, have failed to intercept targets in the three tests since then. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said in recent remarks that the GBI system suffered from “bad engineering” due to an accelerated deployment schedule.

According to Syring, the MDA will resume intercept flight tests of the GMD system later this year.

The administration has a special interest in improving the performance of the GMD system after its decision in March of last year to cancel the SM-3 IIB interceptor, which was intended to supplement the GMD system as a means of defending U.S. territory from long-range missiles, and to deploy 14 additional interceptors in Alaska in response to concerns about the threat posed by North Korean missiles.

Syring confirmed that the MDA still plans to deploy the additional GBI missiles by 2017.

In a March 12 e-mail to Arms Control Today, George Lewis, a physicist who is a senior research associate at Cornell University’s Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, characterized the system’s current reliability as “quite low” and said that the test programs for other missile defense programs, such as Navy’s sea-based Aegis air and missile defense system, show “clearly” that the reliability of the GBI missiles “can be significantly improved.”

Lewis said, however, that the debate over the GMD system is not just about the ability of the interceptors to function as intended. “The fundamental technical dispute between GMD supporters and critics is whether or not it is even possible to build a system that can deal with possible countermeasures,” such as inflatable decoys that may be difficult to distinguish from nuclear warheads in the vacuum of space, he said. Even with a better kill vehicle and improved capabilities to discriminate between real missiles and countermeasures, “this will almost certainly remain in dispute,” he said.

Some lawmakers continue to call for the construction of an additional GMD site on the U.S. East Coast. The MDA is currently conducting an environmental impact study and evaluating a number of locations, but has not decided to move ahead with construction of the site.

The MDA is also continuing to invest in the Obama administration’s regional ballistic missile defense systems, especially the European Phased Adaptive Approach. In his March 4 remarks, Syring said the United States still plans to deploy land-based Aegis Ashore sites, which are currently under construction and which the U.S. Navy will operate, in Romania in 2015 and Poland in 2018. The budget request includes more than $700 million for Aegis-related procurement, including additional copies of existing SM-3 interceptor designs IA and IB. It also would provide $263 million specifically for development of the SM-3 IIA version.

The fiscal year 2015 budget request includes approximately $96.8 million for cooperative programs with Israel. Last year, the administration requested about the same amount, and Congress appropriated $283.8 million. Much of the spending so far has enabled Israel to buy additional batteries and interceptors for its Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which is not a ballistic missile defense system but is nevertheless funded through the MDA budget. The request designates $175 million for Israel’s procurement for the Iron Dome program, down from $220 million appropriated for fiscal year 2014. The United States is cooperatively developing and producing other systems with Israel, including the Arrow-2, Arrow-3, and David’s Sling interceptors and associated sensors and other assets.

Although the recent budget request generally represents a continuation of established policies, some in Congress have suggested that the administration should return to the George W. Bush administration’s missile defense plans in eastern Europe in reaction to Russian actions in Crimea. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a recent statement that President Barack Obama’s ballistic missile defense policies had “collapsed” and that the administration should “engage in a full re-assessment of our missile defense posture in Europe with the purpose of restoring or expanding the installations cancelled in 2009.”