Over the past several months, the Trump administration has slowly been releasing its key national security strategy documents. First came the National Security Strategy (NSS), then the National Defense Strategy (NDS), followed by the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Next on the docket: the Missile Defense Review (MDR), which was expected to be released in February yet the wait continues. Amid the suspense, many in Washington are wondering whether the document will maintain the existing consensus in the United States on missile defense (i.e., defense against limited threats from regional states), or move in a different direction.
When it comes to missile defense, to date, the Trump administration has largely followed the same approach as the Obama administration, which generally received bipartisan support in Congress. In fact, there is little difference between how the Obama administration addressed missile defense and how the Trump administration addresses it in his NSS. The NSS outlines the goal of U.S. homeland missile defense system as follows:
The United States is deploying a layered missile defense system focused on North Korea and Iran to defend our homeland against missile attacks. This system will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch. Enhanced missile defense is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China.
The NDS makes the same general point, outlining that missile defense “investments will focus on layered missile defenses and disruptive capabilities for both theater missile threats and North Korean ballistic missile threats.” And the 2018 NPR echoes a similar sentiment, stating that U.S. missile defenses will stay “ahead of North Korean missile threats if they continue to grow, while also taking steps to preclude an arms race with China or Russia.”
All three national security documents echo the same message: The United States will develop layered missile defenses to address missile threats from Iran and North Korea, while at the same time trying to maintain a level of stability with Russia and China.
The Trump administration’s missile defense programmatic and budget decisions to date aren’t a drastic departure either. The current administration is continuing most of the key missile defense investments made by Obama, like the development and deployment of the Long-Range Discrimination Radar for Alaska; the Redesigned Kill Vehicle for the Ground-Based Interceptors; and the Aegis Ashore site in Poland.
That said, the administration has also made some modest adjustments in the program, like: increasing top-line funding levels for missile defense; expanding the number of long-range missile defense interceptors from 44 to 64 by 2023; and funding two additional long-range discrimination radars for deployment in Hawaii and the Pacific. However, none of these adjustments, which are primarily focused on addressing the North Korean missile threat, have been particularly controversial. Indeed, had Hillary Clinton been elected, her administration would likely have made similar adjustments.
However, are these policies to date representative of the future approach the administration will take on missile defense, or are they merely a holding pattern, similar to how it initially handled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran?
On two key issues—addressing the missile threat from Russia and China, and the future of space-based interceptors—this administration’s current approach may represent more of a holding pattern than a long-term trend. How the upcoming Missile Defense Review addresses these two issues will have significant implications for the domestic consensus on missile defense within the United States, strategic relations with Russia and China, and ally relationships.
While there is currently strong bipartisan support in the United States for addressing Iranian and North Korean missile threats, no such consensus exists to re-orient U.S. missile defenses against Russia and China, as some analysts have contended. Additionally, there are also serious questions as to whether the United States has the technical capability to deal with advanced missile threats from Russia and China.
The NSS, NDS, and NPR all infer that U.S. missile defenses are not intended to undermine strategic stability with Russia and China; however they also highlight the reemergence of great power competition with regards to these countries and the threat they pose. For example, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Fiscal Year 2019 missile defense budget, John Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy, stated that “the central challenge to our prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term strategic competition by revisionist powers in China and Russia.” While Rood did not specifically say in his testimony that MDR would seek to address Russia and China’s ballistic missile capabilities, there appears to be an ongoing debate within the Trump administration about the extent the United States should re-orientate its missile defenses against this threat.
At this point, it is unclear how the MDR will address Russia and China; nevertheless, if a decision is made to fundamentally alter the U.S. missile defense approach towards Russia and China, it will indeed have significant implications. The first of which would likely be that Russia and China respond in kind with adjustments to their own military postures. And for the foreseeable future, offense will remain much cheaper than defense, i.e., the Russians and Chinese can add ballistic missiles, and particularly ballistic missile warheads and decoys, at dramatically less cost than the United States can add missile defense interceptors.
Such a change could impact NATO missile defense. A consensus currently exists within the Alliance on the need to deploy missile defenses to address ballistic missile threats emanating from “outside the Euro-Atlantic area.” And since 2011, NATO has made significant progress in deploying significant missile defense assets in Europe, including the deployment of a radar in Turkey and an interceptor site in Romania. No such consensus exists within the Alliance on how to address the Russian ballistic missile threat. How NATO allies would respond to such a major change in U.S. policy is an open question.
The other potential friction point the MDR could prompt is on the issue of space-based missile defense interceptor capabilities. During testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in April 2018, Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said he wanted to deploy a space-based directed energy weapon to defend the United States from long-range missiles by the late 2020s.
There has generally been bipartisan support for the development of a space-based sensor capabilities in the United States. For example, the Clinton and Obama administrations both supported space-based missile tracking programs (e.g., Space-based Infrared System-Low and the Precision Tracking Space System). That support does not likely extend to the issue of space-based interceptors, which have always been controversial. Indeed, in 2007, the Democratic-controlled Congress eliminated all funding for the Bush administration’s proposed space-based missile defense test bed.
In addition, Russia and China see space-based interceptor capabilities as an “existential threat” to their strategic deterrents. Both nations would likely develop countermeasures in response to any space-based interceptor deployments by the United States, to include capabilities to destroy or disable space-based interceptor assets. There are also serious questions about how allies, who host key U.S. missile defense assets at sites around the world, would react to the decision by the United States to develop and deploy space-based interceptors.
Since assuming office in January 2017, the Trump administration’s missile defense policy, budget, and programs have been largely consistent with those of the previous administration and have generally enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. These efforts have primarily been focused on addressing the missile threat from Iran and North Korea. However, it is an open question whether the upcoming MDR will continue that consensus, especially with regards to the role missile defense should play in addressing the threat from Russia and China; and the decision to move forward with space-based interceptors capabilities. How the MDR addresses these issues will have a significant impact on the current domestic political consensus in favor of missile defense within the United States, strategic stability with Russia and China, and the United States’ relations with its allies.
On February 24, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the National Committee on US-China Relations for a discussion on “The faces of fentanyl: China, the United States, and those in-between.”