Volume 11, Issue 2, January 17, 2019
The Trump administration’s long-awaited Missile Defense Review, which was released today, proposes a significant and costly expansion of the role and scope of U.S. missile defenses that is likely to exacerbate Russian and Chinese concerns about the threat to their strategic nuclear deterrents, undermine strategic stability, and further complicate the prospects for additional nuclear arms reductions.
Of particular concern was President Donald Trump’s statement during his remarks at the Pentagon that the goal of U.S. missile defenses is to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.” This would be a costly, unachievable, and destabilizing departure from longstanding policy and contradicts the text of the review, which limits U.S. homeland missiles defense to their traditional role of defending against limited attacks from North Korea or Iran. In addition, the review proposes “to further thicken defensive capabilities for the U.S. homeland” with the new Aegis SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, hundreds of which could eventually be deployed on land and at sea across the globe.
As Congress scrutinizes the Missile Defense Review, members would do well to recognize that rushing to fund an open-ended and unconstrained missile defense buildup is misguided and would diminish U.S. security.
Congress in 2016 mandated the Pentagon to conduct a broad review of missile defense policy and strategy. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis initiated the review in the spring of 2017 and it was originally slated to be published alongside the Nuclear Posture Review in February 2018. The reasons for the delay in the completion of the review are unclear.
The review expands the purpose of missile defense to defend against cruise and hypersonic missiles, proposes more aggressive defense against Russian and Chinese regional missile threats, alludes to the future development of airborne interceptors for "boost-phase" missile defense (i.e. when missiles are traveling at their slowest right after launch), and proposes to augment the defense of the U.S. homeland with additional ground- and sea-based Aegis SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptors.
Even before the release of the review, Congress during the first two years of the Trump administration approved record appropriations for the Missile Defense Agency to expand existing regional and missile defense systems and advance the development of new technologies.
The review reaffirms preexisting Trump administration plans to:
- try to destroy enemy missiles before launch (known as “left of launch”),
- arm unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with lasers to zap long-range missiles during their boost phase,
- test the SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor against an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)-class target by 2020,
- expand the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system in Alaska and California from 44 to 64 interceptors by 2023, and
- develop multiple kill vehicles for the GMD system.
Costly and Technically Risky
United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars since the 1950s in an effort to field effective ballistic missile defenses and has but a limited capability against a small number of relatively unsophisticated missile threats to show for it. More realism is needed about the costs and limitations of defense capabilities and the long-standing obstacles that have prevented them from working as intended. For example, the $67 billion GMD system designed to defend the U.S. homeland against a North Korean or Iranian threat has an intercept test record of just over 50% and none of the tests have included realistic decoys and countermeasures that the system would likely face in a real attack.
Several of the new technologies proposed in the review face significant technical hurdles. A 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “boost-phase missile defense—whether kinetic or directed energy, and whether based on land, sea, air, or in space—is not practical or feasible.” Additionally, broad area defense against emerging hypersonic missiles will pose an even greater challenge than defending against ballistic missile threats, which generally fly on a more predictable trajectory.
The review discusses how the administration will proceed with several controversial proposals, including space-based interceptors and building a third GMD site in the eastern part of the United States.
On space-based interceptors, the review proposes a near-term feasibility study “of the concepts and technology for space-based defenses.” It adds that the study “may include on-orbit experiments and demonstrations.” During the George W. Bush administration, Congress rejected proposals to fund a space test bed that would put prototype interceptors in space. Further study of putting interceptors in space should end with the same conclusion previous studies have: space-based interceptors are unaffordable, unworkable, and massively destabilizing.
The review states that no decision has yet been made on whether to deploy a third GMD site and that the location for a potential site “will be informed by multiple pertinent factors at the time.” The Missile Defense Agency has repeatedly stated that the estimated $3-$4 billion cost to build such a site would be better spent on improving the capabilities of the existing GMD system.
That this Pentagon is punting, at least for now, on a decision on fielding space-based interceptors and an additional GMD site goes to show how expensive and rightly controversial they are.
Adverse Impact on Russian and Chinese Threat Perceptions
Although the Pentagon’s wish list stops short of green-lighting some of the most controversial missile defense concepts, the new plan could significantly exacerbate Russian and Chinese concerns about the threat U.S. missile defenses pose to their nuclear retaliatory capabilities.
The review comports with longstanding U.S. policy in stating that homeland missile defense capabilities will be sized to defend against “rogue states’ offensive missile threats” and not “more sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.” But in his remarks on the review, Trump went beyond the text of the review and stated that “We will terminate any missile launches from hostile powers...regardless of missile type or geographic origin.” Moscow and Beijing may understandably wonder whether Trump’s statements or the text of the review reflect U.S. policy.
Furthermore, the administration’s plan to test the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor against an ICBM target by 2020, and to build hundreds of the interceptors by the 2030s, threatens to cross the line between expanding missile defense capabilities to counter regional and “rogue” state threats to the homeland, and the development of capabilities that can counter Russian and Chinese long-range missiles.
Such concerns could potentially be mitigated if Washington agreed to limit the number, location, and capabilities of this systems, but the Missile Defense Review asserts that the United States will forswear any limits on U.S. defenses.
Russia fears that advancing U.S. defenses and offensive conventional strike capabilities could soon allow Washington to threaten Moscow's secure second-strike capability. Moscow has also conditioned further reductions to its nuclear arsenal below the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) on limits on U.S. missile defenses.
In a speech last year touting several new Russian nuclear delivery systems such as an intercontinental undersea torpedo and hypersonic glide vehicles, President Vladimir Putin described the rationale for the new weapons largely in terms of concern about U.S. missile defense systems.
China may already be augmenting its smaller nuclear strike capabilities in response to current U.S. missile defenses and an expansion of these defenses could prompt Beijing to make additional qualitative and quantitative improvements to its arsenal. Such improvements would make it even more difficult to achieve further reductions to the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
The Missile Defense Review comes at a time when the bilateral U.S.-Russian arms control architecture is under siege. The 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is on the verge of collapse and the future of New START is uncertain.
Both sides are citing the other’s missile defense deployments and plans as rationales to outfit their strategic nuclear arsenals with more capable weapons. Neither Moscow nor Washington is taking into account the concerns the other has about their offensive and defensive developments sufficiently seriously to avoid increased risks of instability.
Rather than rush to spend billions on a potentially dangerous expansion of U.S. missile defenses, a more disciplined approach would focus on improving the shortcomings that continue to plague current systems, such as GMD, and improve capabilities to detect and track missiles. Moreover, the United States should pursue wide-ranging dialogues with Russia and China on strategic stability, including the impact of missile defense, and not pursue particularly destabilizing steps, such as pursuing space-based interceptors and testing the SM-3 Block IIA against ICBMs.—KINGSTON A. REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy