The Trump administration’s new Missile Defense Review is a mixed bag

A Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) soldier stands in front of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile unit before Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reviews the unit at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, Japan, October 8, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon - RC1B33E78DD0

On January 17, the Department of Defense (DoD) released its long-awaited Missile Defense Review (MDR), which outlines a roadmap for U.S. missile defense policy, strategy, and programs. The 2019 MDR outlines a “threat environment that is markedly more dangerous than in past years,” especially since the Obama administration released the Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) in 2010. In particular, the MDR notes the significant advancements in North Korea’s efforts to develop intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of threatening the United States, Iran’s continued development of improved short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and Russia and China development of hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles. Faced with these challenges, the MDR lays out a vision for “a concerted U.S. effort to improve existing capabilities for both homeland and regional missile defense.” Will the plan outlined by the MDR allow the United States to achieve the goal of improving these capabilities?

U.S. homeland missile defense

Similar to the 2010 BMDR, the MDR rightly makes defending the homeland the number one priority of the U.S. missile defense program, stating: “It is imperative that U.S. missile defense capabilities provide effective, continuing protection against threats to the homeland, now and into the future.” To accomplish this, the review directs DoD to take a number of pragmatic actions, including: deploying 20 additional long-range interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska, improving the kill vehicle on the long-range interceptor; deploying additional discrimination radars in Alaska, Hawaii, and other locations; upgrading existing radars; and examining the feasibility of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor to engage certain ICBM-class threats. These improvements to the homeland missile defense system, which build on Obama administration efforts, should be sufficient to address the long-range missile threat to the United States in the near- to mid-term.

The MDR did not recommend moving forward with the deployment of a third long-range interceptor site in the eastern portion of the United States to improve the defense against potential ICBM-class threats from the Middle East. Iran does not currently possess ICBM-class ballistic missiles, and if it were to develop such a capability, the long-range interceptors deployed in Alaska have the capability to defend the entire United States against potential ICBM-class threats from the Middle East. Given that capability and the large costs associated with building a new interceptor site, this was the correct decision.

Regional missile defense and cooperation with allies and partners

The MDR also places a high priority on deploying effective regional missile defense capabilities. Among other things, the MDR directs DoD to assess the need for additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, continue the deployment of the Aegis Ashore site in Poland, and increase the number of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (Aegis BMD)-capable warships from 38 to 60 by the end of fiscal year 2023.

The review includes some of the best language on international cooperation to appear in a U.S. missile defense policy document.

In addition to enhancing U.S. regional missile defense capabilities, the MDR directs DoD to expand missile defense cooperation with allies and partners. According to the MDR: “This cooperation will focus on expanding opportunities for collaboration on missile defense programs, deepening interoperability in missile defense systems and operations, expanding burden sharing among its allies and partners to confront shared threats.” In my opinion, the review includes some of the best language on international cooperation to appear in a U.S. missile defense policy document.

However, President Trump’s longstanding view that allies are unfairly taking advantage of the United States may make it difficult to implement this portion of the review. Indeed, President Trump used his remarks at the Pentagon’s January 17th MDR rollout event to criticize allies. While I agree that the United States should encourage allies to increase their missile defense capabilities, it is important to remember that sensors based on allied territories—e.g., the upgraded early warning radars in Greenland and the United Kingdom, and forward-deployed radars in Japan—play a critical role in protecting the U.S. homeland from ICBM-class threats. Without access to these important facilities, it would be very difficult to mount an effective defense of the U.S. homeland against ICBM-class threats from Asia and the Middle East. The president should be reminded of this fact.

Addressing the threat from Russia and China

The MDR also examines whether there is a role for missile defense in addressing the missile threat from Russia and China. On that note, the MDR wisely argues that the United States will continue to rely “on nuclear deterrence to address the large and more sophisticated Russian and Chinese ballistic missile capabilities.” This is consistent with the policy of the three previous U.S. administrations.

However, the review takes a somewhat different view on the role of missiles in addressing the threat from Russian and Chinese regional missile capabilities. In particular, it recommends that the United States develop capabilities to defeat Russian and Chinese regional ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and hypersonic glide vehicles. To be fair, the change is not as big of a policy departure from the previous administration as it first appears. Indeed, with regard to China, the Obama administration’s 2010 BMDR stated: “[I]t is important that China understand that the United States will work to ensure the protection of our forces, allies, and partners in East Asia against all regional ballistic missile threats.”

There is no doubt that Russia and China are developing a full spectrum of regional missile capabilities designed to target U.S. deployed forces and allies. However, there are also legitimate questions as to whether active missile defenses are the most effective way to address that threat; or, whether it would be more effective to invest in other capabilities, like a conventional variant of the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile, that would allow the United States to hold-at-risk key Russian and Chinese targets. Determining how to effectively counter the Russian and Chinese regional threat is a serious issue that requires much more study.

Boost-phase and space-based capabilities  

Acknowledging the evolution of the missile threat, the MDR directs DoD to explore the development of several new types of technologies.

The first of these concepts are boost-phase defense systems, designed to intercept ballistic missiles in their boost-phase, before the re-entry vehicle separates from the booster. According to the review, these types of systems “increase the likelihood of successfully countering missile threats” and “provide a cost-effective capability to destroy boosting missile in the early part of their flight.” The MDR recommends exploring two boost-phase intercept options: an F-35 Lighting fighter plane armed with a kinetic interceptor and a compact high-energy laser on an unmanned drone. Given the advances in the threat, the United States should pursue research and development on new missile defense concepts like boost-phase defense.

That said, the operational and technical challenges associated with boost-phase defense should not be underestimated, as was highlighted by the American Physical Society a 2003 report. We should also be mindful that two previous boost-phase missile defense systems—the Airborne Laser and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor—were ultimately cancelled for a variety of operational, technical, and cost reasons.

The MDR also notes the important role that space-based systems could contribute to missile defense. It argues that space-based sensors can provide “birth to death” tracking of missiles that would greatly improve terrestrial-based interceptors’ ability to engage threat missiles. Given the potential benefits of space-based sensors, the United States should begin research and development of a space-based sensor layer. However, similar to boost-phase defense systems, this would not be the first time the United States has sought to develop a space-based missile tracking capability. Two previous attempts—Space-Based Infrared System-Low (SBIRS-Low) and the Precision Tracking and Surveillance System—were ultimately cancelled due to a variety cost and technical issues. That said, two SBIRS-Low satellites were built and eventually launched as technology demonstrators known as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS).

In addition to space-based sensors, the MDR notes that “space-basing of interceptors also may provide significant advantages, particularly for boost-phase defense,” and directs the Missile Defense Agency to “study (the) development and fielding of a space-based interceptor layer capable of boost-phase and provide a report…within six months after release of the MDR.” While the MDR only recommends studying the issue at this point, based on statements by senior administration officials, it appears that the Trump administration is inclined to begin research and development of a space-based interceptor capability. If the United States moves in this direction, Russia and China are certain to react, as they see space-based interceptors as an “existential threat” to their strategic deterrents. As former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller and I recently wrote:

The deployment of space-based interceptors or directed energy systems by the United States would almost certainly trigger a response by Russia and China…It would be a top national priority for both countries to prevent the deployment of such systems, or barring that, to be able to disable or destroy them early in a conflict.

Developing and deploying a space-based interceptor capability would not only involve technical and cost concerns, it would also have significant strategic and political implications. Therefore, Congress would be wise to develop a fuller understanding of the strategic implications of space-based interceptors before approving any funding for the program.

What will it cost?

The MDR is silent on the resources that will be needed to implement the strategy and programs outlined in the review. Additional details on the resource implications of the MDR will likely be revealed in the president’s fiscal year 2020 budget request next month. However, given the number of new programs and concepts the MDR seeks to initiate—and the fact that the United States has begun a major modernization of its strategic nuclear deterrent and a recapitalization of its conventional military forces—it’s hard to see how the program outlined in the MDR will be affordable over the long-term. These cost concerns will make it critical for the Trump administration and Congress to maintain strong oversight of missile defense programs and be prepared to quickly terminate underperforming or failing programs.

The pros and cons

Overall, the 2019 MDR is a mixed bag. On the positive side, its recommendations to enhance the near-to-midterm effectiveness of U.S. homeland defense (e.g., deploy 20 more long-range interceptors in Alaska, increase number of discrimination radars, improve reliability of the kill vehicle) are good. So is the language on regional missile defense and cooperation with allies and partners. And its recommendation to examine new boost-phase defense options and space-based sensor capabilities have merit; however, those new technologies are certain to face technical, operational, and cost-related challenges.

My biggest concern about the MDR is the focus it places on space-based interceptors and the potential implications of that for stability with Russia and China. While the MDR only recommends studying the issue at this point, it appears that the Trump administration is inclined to begin the development of a space-based interceptor capability. If the United States moves in this direction, Russia and China are certain to react.

Finally, there are serious questions about how the administration will pay for the missile defense program outlined in the MDR, especially when the United States has big bills pending for strategic nuclear modernization and the recapitalization of our conventional military forces.