In the 1990s, the U.S. intelligence community assessed that North Korea might acquire an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015. That threat is now here. North Korea demonstrated ICBM capability twice in July, with a missile that might be able to reach Chicago. This demonstration came only a year and a half later than those old warnings had estimated. North Korea has also shown that it has hydrogen-bomb technology that it could mate to its new missile.
It is good that the United States has in place a limited defensive capability against this threat. That this capability exists, however, was far from automatic. It required sustained leadership and vision. In 2000, even while declining to move forward with deployment, President Bill Clinton declared that national missile defense would be an important form of insurance. In 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and in 2004 he deployed the first ground-based interceptors in Alaska. Had that old 1972 treaty with the former Soviet Union remained in place, today’s defense would not have been possible. In 2010, the Obama administration observed that the U.S. was, at least at the time, in an “advantageous” position relative to the threat of long-range missile attack such as that from North Korea. And so it was.
The situation facing us today is different. From the Middle East to Europe to the Asia-Pacific, one sees a surge in the global supply of and demand for a wide variety of missile-based precision-guided weapons and the means to counter them. Collectively, this represents a kind of missile renaissance. The Iranian-supported Houthi faction in Yemen has fired a significant number of missiles at both civilian and military targets in its conflict with Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, as well as at the USS Mason (DDG-87), which was the object of a cruise-missile attack last October. In June, Iran launched several Zolfaghar missiles at ISIS targets in Syria, demonstrating a willingness to use its significant missile arsenal for more than just deterrence. Russia has used its long-range Kalibr cruise missiles to strike targets in Syria, sending a signal to the U.S. and NATO. China, too, is developing and fielding a wide array and significant number of strike missiles and air-defense systems.
The Pentagon is currently conducting a review of missile defense policy and programs. Unlike the review in 2010, this one occurs in the face of new threats. At presidential direction, it will “identify ways of strengthening missile defense capabilities, rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities, and highlighting priority funding areas.”
To address this strategic environment, the U.S. should reorient missile defense policy and programs along three major lines of effort: greater emphasis on protecting the American homeland, the fielding of a space sensor layer, and reinvigoration of research-and-development efforts to outpace current and emerging threats.
Rebalance to the homeland. As of today, America’s only line of defense against a long-range ballistic missile is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, an integrated network of interceptors and sensors. GMD provides a critical but thin layer of defense against small-scale attacks of relatively unsophisticated missiles. In the event of a more sophisticated or larger-scale attack in the near future, America’s homeland defenses could be strained unless we take steps to improve their reliability, capability, and capacity.
The need for such improvement applies particularly to the ground-based interceptor (GBI). Besides the booster that propels it into space, a GBI includes an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) that hunts down and collides with an incoming warhead. Around 37 GBIs are currently deployed in Alaska and California. That number will rise to 44 by the end of 2017. To keep pace with North Korea’s ICBM development, however, additional steps are required.
At current levels of funding, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) can make only incremental improvements. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2016, funding for MDA decreased approximately 24 percent. The effort devoted to homeland defense decreased by 46.5 percent in that same period, from $3.7 billion in 2007 to $2 billion in 2016 (in constant 2017 dollars). The administration’s request for fiscal year 2018 did not correct it, but congressional appropriators still have time to do so.
With greater resources, several options to improve the homeland-defense system become possible between now and 2020. One would be to expand existing missile fields at Fort Greely, in Alaska, to add capacity for both the latest configuration of interceptors and, more important, the redesigned kill vehicle (RKV), which is not yet available but will be around 2021. Adding another 14 to 20 interceptors would cost around $900 million over several years.
Another option remains the addition of a site on the continental U.S., possibly on the East Coast, at a cost of perhaps $2 billion. Besides housing ten to 20 interceptors, such a site would add depth to the existing site in Alaska and improve our ability to shoot at a threat missile more than once. In the longer term, there are good operational reasons for creating such a full-up East Coast site, but for now its construction would entail significant opportunity cost. Significant investments would be required for concrete and site infrastructure before a single interceptor would be put into the ground.
Other, less expensive alternatives must therefore be considered. Today’s GBIs are all in silos, but developing a transportable version is one option, perhaps as a bridge to a full site sometime in the future. Such a concept would take GBIs like those fielded today out of the silo. They would instead be carried on trucks and readied for launch during times of heightened threat. They could be stored at a depot on the East Coast or at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where some four GBIs are already currently deployed.
While homeland missile defense merits greater attention, regional missile defense for U.S. forces will remain critically important for the foreseeable future. Regional missile defense programs include the Navy’s sea-based missile defenses on Aegis ships and the Army’s Patriot and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) programs. Each of these faces various stresses and a lack of modernization. The fleet of 34 Aegis ships capable of ballistic-missile defense (BMD) is now down by two, owing to recent at-sea collisions. To put all this in perspective: The Navy’s stated goal is 40 advanced BMD-capable ships, and Combatant Commanders have requested 77.
The Army’s Patriot and THAAD force may also require greater capacity. Although improving air and missile defense is one of the highest priorities of the Army’s broader modernization effort, it has been slow-going. The Army is still on pace to receive only seven THAAD batteries; nine were considered necessary even in the rosier geopolitical environment of 2012. The Army’s current air and missile defense is a wisp compared with what it was during the Cold War. It would be seriously challenged to meet more-advanced threats from Russia or China today.
Rebalance from Earth to space. A second major way to advance U.S. missile defense capability would be to field a new space layer of orbiting sensors.
Space provides a unique vantage point for missile defense sensors, qualitatively different from that of the ground-based radars currently in use. Observing a missile from space improves our ability to distinguish the deadly warhead from the associated flying junk pile of debris that accompanies it. Because of its position high above the Earth, an orbiting satellite can follow a threat missile for a longer time than can a ground-based radar. The combination of sensors both on the ground and in space would substantially improve our picture of incoming missiles, permitting earlier intercept and reducing the likelihood of wasting interceptors on false targets.
On paper, each of the last five administrations has had plans for a space-based sensor layer for national missile defense, but so far none has been deployed. The U.S. operates the legacy Defense Support Program and space-based infrared satellites for early warning. But detection of a missile’s launch is not the same as more precisely monitoring its trajectory and location so as to tell the interceptors where to go. Today, the U.S. still has no operational space-based system for the critical missions of tracking threat missiles and distinguishing the warhead from other objects in space. And unfortunately, MDA’s funding for such efforts has suffered a dramatic decline over the past decade. A space-sensor layer for this mission would significantly improve the capability of today’s missile defenses — and would do so for all the various missile defense families, regional and homeland alike.
Rebalance toward research and development. A third area requiring attention is the need to rebalance the objects of funding within missile defense, specifically to reverse a trend that has squeezed out much research and development for advanced technology. Some of these efforts include directed-energy weapons, including a laser mounted on an unmanned aerial vehicle, to defeat missiles in their boost phase. Such a capability flying off the coast of North Korea would dramatically alleviate the pressure on GMD interceptors based in Alaska or elsewhere. Lasers are unlikely to remove the need for kinetic interceptors any time soon, but such a capability even for shorter-range threats would considerably redress current vulnerabilities of U.S. deployed forces.
In 2013, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter warned about the Pentagon’s temptation to “eat our seed corn” — that is, to raid longer-term research and development in favor of nearer-term goals. Research and development is necessary to develop new technologies necessary to outpace future threats, but funding for such critical efforts has dramatically declined as MDA has assumed significant obligations — in the procurement, operation, and maintenance of missile defense assets — beyond what were envisioned in its original charter, further squeezing limited resources.
MDA was originally chartered as an entity focused on research and development, with the understanding that the several services, primarily the Army and Navy, were expected to procure and operate the missile defense system that MDA developed. The planned transfer from MDA to the services of budgetary responsibility for procurement and operational spending has been remarkably slow in coming. MDA has therefore had to deal with more responsibility and a lower topline, and the effect has been to squeeze out the investments in high technology.
Foreign assistance has been yet another underappreciated source of pressure. Year in and year out, Congress appropriates significant increases in funding related to missile defense for Israel, well above the amounts requested in the president’s budget. All this missile defense support for Israel comes out of MDA’s budget, and all too often the increased funding for Israel is not accompanied by a comparable addition to the agency’s topline. As a result, U.S. missile defense programs again get further squeezed. In 2014, 9.4 percent of MDA’s budget went to Israeli programs. None of this is to say that Israel should receive less assistance. But congressional appropriators must be more careful to avoid an unhealthy competition whereby increased funding to help our ally defend itself comes at the expense of America’s ability to defend Americans.
None of this is easy. Missile defense can be a complicated enterprise, but it is no longer mere theory. It has moved from vision to real-world capability. The need to grow and improve this capability must not be shirked. Missile defense is now well established in U.S. and allied security architectures, and its significance seems likely to remain and grow. Increased attention to protecting the homeland, fielding a space sensor layer, and scrupulous attention to advancing high technology are three efforts critical to advancing such capabilities and carrying them into the 21st century.
– Mr. Karako is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the director of its Missile Defense Project.