Last week, the Trump administration released its congressionally-mandated Missile Defense Review (MDR). Below, five Brookings experts on defense offer their key takeaways on the document.
Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
Former Brookings Expert
Madelyn Creedon (@mrc5920), Nonresident Senior Fellow, Security and Strategy: The recently released MDR reintroduces the concept of rogue nations and defines them as Iran and North Korea. And yet Iran negotiated an agreement to denuclearize, to which it is abiding, and North Korea has demonstrated remarkable and surprising restraint since the June summit by stopping nuclear and missile testing. Whether it has stopped production of missiles and nuclear warheads is another question.
Homeland missile defense remains focused on defense against rogue states. The ground-based interceptor (GBI) missile defense system in Alaska and California is to defend the United States from Iran, which doesn’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and which is in the process of denuclearizing, as well as North Korea, which has an estimated 15 to 20 warheads and no demonstrated ICBM. Today, the United States has 44 GBIs, but the MDR is seriously considering building a new GBI field in Alaska and increasing that number to 64.
The new MDR makes it clear the that the GBIs are not intended to defeat the ICBMs from China or Russia. This job is filled by deterrence, specifically the U.S. nuclear triad. And yet the MDR proposes to increase spending and increase the number of GBIs to defend against rogue countries that don’t or probably don’t have ICBMs that can successfully reach the United States. In the meantime, the real threat, which is from short- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, is significantly underfunded. This threat is so significant that we are on the verge of making aircraft carriers irrelevant as the range of the cruise missiles pushes their safe zone farther and farther from a relevant distance to meaningfully project force in the Asia Pacific.
Improving the accuracy and reliability of the 44 GBIs that we have makes sense, but additional spending should be focused on the real threat, short and intermediate and short-range conventional cruise and ballistic missiles, and not on more GBIs.
Creedon: “The real threat, which is from short- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, is significantly underfunded.”
Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative: The rollout of the Trump administration’s MDR on January 17 left U.S. allies and potential adversaries—and the American public—with what has become a familiar question: Should we listen to the president or the professionals who work for him?
The Pentagon-drafted MDR succinctly outlines a key element of missile defense policy:
“U.S. missile defense capabilities will be sized to provide continuing effective protection of the U.S. homeland against rogue states’ offensive missile threats. The United States relies on nuclear deterrence to address the large and more sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.”
This suggests that the Trump administration recognizes what all recent U.S. administrations have recognized—that it is neither technologically feasible nor affordable to protect the American homeland from the numerically large and sophisticated missile arsenals of “peer competitors” Russia and China. Therefore, the best way to prevent a missile attack by either country is to maintain effective strategic offensive nuclear forces that leave no doubt in Moscow or Beijing that such an attack would result in an overwhelming U.S. response.
The MDR also recognizes—again, as previous administration have recognized—that reducing the missile threat to the homeland from countries with small missile forces like North Korea is much more realistic. Challenging, to be sure, but worth pursuing, not utterly futile.
But at the MDR rollout ceremony, President Trump muddied the waters: “Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place.”
Was that typical Trump hyperbole or a major departure in U.S. missile defense policy? That is certainly a question the Russians and Chinese are asking themselves—because if they believe the United States is now seeking to defend against any missile attack aimed at U.S. territory, they will have every incentive to increase their missile forces in order to penetrate U.S. defenses and preserve their deterrents.
It is not in the U.S. security interest to leave them guessing or to convey the impression that the United States is now seeking to negate their deterrents. To avoid a destabilizing arms race, the administration should clear up any confusion the president has created.
Steven Pifer (@steven_pifer), Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative: The MDR outlines a far more incremental approach to missile defense than President Trump’s suggestion that U.S. defenses be able to destroy any missile launched against the United States “anywhere, any time, any place.”
Pifer: “As Congress considers funding missile defenses, it should bear in mind unintended consequences.”
The U.S. military should have some missile defense capabilities, and U.S. missile defenses have improved in recent years—particularly against short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. That reflects tens of billions of dollars devoted to the task over the past 35 years. It is important, however, to remember that this is rocket science. It is hard to succeed.
As Congress considers funding missile defenses, it should bear in mind unintended consequences. While the MDR indicates the Pentagon will not seek to negate the ability of Russia and China to strike the U.S. homeland with strategic ballistic missiles, Moscow and Beijing deeply suspect U.S. plans. The MDR’s proposals to test an SM-3 IIA interceptor against an ICBM and to study space-based interceptors will fuel those suspicions. We should manage our program so as to avoid creating a situation in which Russia or China believes it must increase its strategic nuclear warhead numbers in order to overwhelm U.S. defenses.
For the near term, strategic offense will win the offense-defense competition against strategic defense. Russia and China can add additional nuclear warheads or decoys to their missile forces faster and at less cost than the United States can add defenses. That might—might, not will—change at some future point. In the meantime, it is not in the U.S. interest to spur an offensive arms race that increases the nuclear threat to the America.
Frank Rose, Senior Fellow, Security and Strategy: Overall, I think the 2019 MDR is a mixed bag. On the positive side, its recommendations to enhance the near-to-midterm effectiveness of homeland missile defenses (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 intercept options and space-based sensor capabilities should be implemented, though these new technologies are likely to encounter serious technical, operational, and fiscal challenges.
My biggest concern about the MDR is its focus of space-based interceptors and the implications of that for stability with Russia and China. While the MDR only recommends studying the issue at the point, based on the language in the review, it appears that the Trump administration is strongly inclined towards beginning the development of a space-based interceptor capability. As I’ve written elsewhere, 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.
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 coming due for modernization of its strategic nuclear deterrent and the recapitalization of its conventional military forces.
Strobe Talbott (@strobetalbott), Distinguished Fellow in Residence, Foreign Policy: U.S. missile defense is a tale of four presidents. Two of them come out wise, and two are responsible for making the world a more dangerous place.
In 1967, Lyndon Johnson sat down with the Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin in Glassboro, New Jersey. LBJ had two issues. One was Vietnam, which was a bust. The other was the beginning of a drawn-out negotiation in which Johnson had a devil of a time convincing the Soviets that defensive systems were unworkable and dangerous. The more one side puts up anti-missiles, the more the other side would churn out offensive weapons to overcome the defense. Finally, the Soviets saw the light.
Next, Richard Nixon consummated the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that constrained and eventually outlawed defenses. Then along came Ronald Reagan, who had a dream of an impenetrable defense inspired by a science fiction movie he recalled from his Hollywood days. He called it the Strategic Defense Initiative. Skeptics called it “Star Wars.”
When Reagan rode off into the sunset, the program slowed down—until George W. Bush was elected. On the day that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush v. Gore, the president-elect paid a courtesy call on Bill Clinton. Clinton asked Bush what his priorities were in the national security field. Near the top of the list was resuming the missile defense program. Early in Bush’s term he pulled the United States out of the ABM Treaty. That was foolish, given that the offense would likely always have the advantage over the defense, but—once again—the program lagged without any breakthroughs.
So now we come to President Trump who wants to build a Beautiful Wall in the Sky to match the one on the Mexico border. The scientific case against successful defenses in the nuclear age hasn’t changed. But, of course, Trump is the most ahistorical and anti-scientific president we’ve ever had. Here’s hope that both projects remain in his fevered imagination.